Students at High School for Recording Arts learning to edit music on a computer

Striking a chord: At-risk students mix a passion for music with academics on the road to a high school diploma

Schools across the country are replicating a high school program unlocking academic and economic potential

The High School for Recording Arts in Saint Paul, Minnesota has made a name for itself by accomplishing what traditional schools often can’t: motivating at-risk students that otherwise may never graduate high school and then setting them up for success. Educators outside of Minnesota are taking note. 

Its attraction? Hip-hop music and recording arts. HSRA, sometimes known as “Hip-Hop High” is a public charter school with its own recording studio, mixing a passion for music, hands-on learning, career exploration, and an academic curriculum.

Teachers provide personalized learning through the lens of hip-hop and recording arts. The school counts roughly 350 students and a 90% graduation rate, with each graduate getting at least one college acceptance letter. 

That’s a far cry from the situation that prompted rap and hip-hop artist David T.C. Ellis to start HSRA in 1998. Ellis, who worked with fellow Minnesota native and music legend Prince, had his own record label and recording studio called Studio 4 when he took note of something that would change lives, including his own. 

“Young people would show up at the studio, incredibly passionate and determined to learn how to get into the music business, how to get their music played. But David realized they weren’t in school,” explains Tony Simmons, HSRA’s executive director.

“He would ask, ‘Why aren’t you in school?’ They’d say, ‘I’m bored at school. The school kicked me out.’ David would then tell them, ‘Well, you still need your education. It’s not good enough just to be an artist.'”

He would explain that “there’s a business side, that you need to read well, be able to compute, all of the things we know that a person gains as a result of being in school,” Simmons adds. “That’s when David had the idea to flip his recording studio into a school.”

At the core of the mission: changing the course of young people in danger of dropping out of school.

“Literally when a young person doesn’t graduate from high school, not only are their life’s prospects lessened in terms of economics, they actually live fewer years. We want to have our young people see themselves as learners – develop that in them, become lifelong learners – graduate from high school, and be the productive members of society that they can be, as opposed to being on that school-to-prison track,”  Simmons explains.

Expanding HSRA’s Model Across the Country

More than two decades later, HSRA’s “practices and philosophies” on guiding at-risk students to a high school diploma are being shared with school districts across the United States through the school’s sister nonprofit 4 Learning, of which Simmons is a co-founder. 

In California, Studio 4LA, opened its doors in the fall of 2023 and is currently serving 15 students.

4 Learning is also working with existing schools and districts, citing partnerships with the YouthBuild Charter School of California, the Sun Prairie Area School District in Wisconsin, Perspectives Math and Science Academy in Chicago, Connections Academy in Hilo, Hawaii, and the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science in Pāhoa, Hawaii. 

Conversations are also underway about a potential program in Montreal, Canada. To foster community and exchange ideas among educators, 4 Learning holds an annual conference called ReMixEd.

Simmons explains that in expanding HSRA’s model, a core lesson is a commitment to the at-risk students who need these programs. “What we’re sharing with the schools, first and foremost, is to not give up on our young people who are struggling the most. And most of that struggle comes out of their marginalization and oppression in society.”

He adds, “We want them to know that these young people may be going through things, but they’re brilliant. It’s on us to unmask that brilliance, to spend the time, create this space, to get to know them so that they can share with us what they know, what they’re going through, what they’ve experienced so that we can then build on that to help have them grow as a learner.”

4 Learning – Remixing High School Education

4 Learning is the sister organization to the High School for Recording Arts, designed to support schools, districts, and states across the country to see and nurture every student as a phenomenon through the recording arts and other creative endeavors.

Creating a Space for Learning 

When 4 Learning partners with a school, it trains teachers on its project-based learning model, builds a recording studio which can be as simple as a laptop, mic and interface to start, and staffing the studio with facilitators and teaching artists.

“Typically we start with a needs assessment with any organization that we’re working with to see where they’re at with student-centered personalized learning that is art-based. And once we identify where they’re at in that space, then we’re better able to understand their needs in terms of how we might facilitate their educators in viewing a recording studio really as a classroom, a space where any subject area can be taught,” says Michael Lipset, Ph.D., a co-founder and co-director of 4 Learning. 

The aim is for teachers to connect the relevance of the core subjects of English, math, and science as students get hands-on experience in production. “That puts students in professional positions like artist manager, audio engineer, producer, documentary filmmaker, script writer, et cetera, with a particular focus on solving a real world problem,” explains Lipset.

Students listening to teacher in a hands-on program on recording arts at a Wisconsin high school
(Photo: 4 Learning)

The aspiration, he says, is to provide a high quality liberal arts education, and adds, “The idea is to get students engaged in their learning by making that learning hype-relevant to what’s happening in their lives and their communities and in their spaces.” 

As 4 Learning expands, Lipset says the organization is exploring a specific vocational/training pathway in audio engineering with the Philadelphia Public School District. The aim is to develop a curriculum that could be used nationally that would allow students to earn credits in either high school or a postsecondary school in the field of audio engineering. 

Audio engineers, for example, can work on a range of platforms from radio, television, and movies, to  the recording arts. Education requirements range from a high school diploma to a college degree, depending on the kind of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which estimates the median salary at $54,160 a year.  

‘Creativity is the 21st century currency’

With a passion for music and the arts the attraction for students who gravitate to these programs, the range of possibilities for careers is wide-ranging, from performing to running recording studios to radio to podcasts to writing.

But the skills being taught, explains Simmons, are not confined to the entertainment industry. 

“We believe that creativity is the 21st century currency. When our young people understand not just what they can do as an artist, but that creative mindset and how powerful that is in the 21st century economy, then it’s wide open for them to explore whatever they want to do.”

4 Learning co-founders and co-directors Michael Lipset and Tony Simmons spoke with me at SXSW EDU 2024 in Austin in March for our WorkingNation Overheard series. Watch some of their interviews below.

Expanding a Creative Learning Model | WorkingNation Overheard | SXSW EDU

“One important thing to understand about the work that we do is we work with some of the hardest to reach young people in the U.S.,” says Michael Lipset, co-director and co-founder of 4 Learning – the sister organization to the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA).

Building Trust Through the Creative Process | WorkingNation Overheard | SXSW EDU

“For us as a school, particularly as we engage in a creative process, so much of that is human work and really building that trust and relationship with the young person,” says Tony Simmons, co-director and co-founder of 4 Learning – the sister organization to the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA).

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