High school for recording arts is 'hip hop central'by Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
About two dozen seniors will graduate Wednesday from the High School for the Recording Arts in St. Paul. This is a day many of the students never thought they would see because of crime, drugs and other obstacles. The public charter school has a unique education model centered around making music and has a high percentage of students who've returned to school after dropping out - or being kicked out - of other schools.
St. Paul, Minn. — This is what Trigonometry sounds like to Preston Scott:
"This is going to be the Y sine X, this is going to be the whole beat right here, let's go."
Scott's in a dim studio amid the glow of lights from mixing boards and computers. A small group of students is hunkering down to record some tracks.
"That beat was kind of cool but I didn't really like it, so instead of having the whole beat let's cut it, let's do a little Y sine X plus 120," the track goes.
It may sound just like hip-hop but it's much more than that. Writing a song is a way for students at the High School for Recording Arts to demonstrate their understanding of the Math they've studied all year.
School Development Director Tony Simmons says about half of the students here have not succeeded in traditional schools. He says it's not unusual to see a 17, 18 or 19 -year old starting with the credits of a ninth grader.
"These kids are the ones who have dropped out or been kicked out of school. Well over half of our kids fit into that category and many have been involved with the criminal justice system, over half. Anywhere from 30 to 35 percent of our kids are homeless at any given time, so these are kids who are living close to really having their lives fall apart and ending up prison or worse."
Simmons says each student gets a highly individualized academic program.
Students' interest in music is at the heart of the school's educational model. Kids have to hit academic milestones to earn time working on music in the studio.
Math teacher Mike Conway points to another student and says it looks like fun, and it clearly is, but it's also rigorous.
"He is just getting his rhymes down and putting it into his language but it's got to be accurate and he's got to explain what is opposite, what is hypotenuse, where is this coming from, but it's all in his language and with a beat and it's got to be produced and put out this Sunday."
Student Ronald Baker says it's working for him. Baker is 20-years old. He's had a tough time getting through high school. This is his third school in almost as many years, after being kicked out for getting into fights.
Baker says The High School for Recording Arts has literally saved his life.
"I'm pretty sure I would've been locked up or dead because on the Northside of Minneapolis, everybody hears about it on the news, I was falling into the stuff they were doing out there and I was falling into it but I was young so I really didn't understand what I was doing," Baker says.
He says he felt accepted at the school and was able to relax enough to focus on catching up academically.
At more than 70 percent, the school's graduation rate trails the statewide average. But more than 90 percent of graduates go on to some form of higher education.
The University of Minnesota's Joe Nathan says the school can do better. He says it is doing a great job reaching an underserved population. But, he says, it needs to do more to make sure students really get the basics.
"They have to show that they are making progress academically. They have to show they are coming to school regularly before they get the treat of making use of the incredible recording arts equipment they have there and that is a good approach but I also think they really need to make sure that they have more projects where young people are working hard on reading and writing and math."
But school officials say the numbers don't give a full picture of the school's success. They say this is because the state's method for tallying graduation rates undercounts students with transient school histories.
Student Ronald Baker reflects on how much more hopeful his life seems after attending the school.
"I was out on the streets, kicked out of the house, my mom couldn't handle me. It just made me see things in a different light and it changed me."
Baker excelled creatively. This year, he won the school award for best music video. And while he says in the past he could never imagine it, he knows now that college is in his sights.
Enrollment at the school is up and the success is attracting support. The program has been recognized with grants from the The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And organizers recently opened a similar school in Los Angeles. Another is slated to open in New York next year.
- Morning Edition, 06/11/2008, 7:25 a.m.