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David Ellis, the founder of High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, walked into the lunchroom fashionably late, chomping on a bag of Doritos as he surveyed the crowd. Two students had just started rapping. By the time the chorus hit, a mob of fans rushed the stage for a chance to freestyle a verse.
"Do you see the joy in these kids?" Ellis says. "They've got relief up there. Music is saving their lives."
Ellis wandered through the rows of tables, greeting students with handshakes and hugs.
"When politicians talk about the achievement gap, they are talking about these kids," Ellis says. "They're pushing them out of traditional schools to better their numbers, and here we are just trying to prove these kids deserve an education. You're not closing the gap; you're hiding it."
Teens started hanging out in the skyway near his studio during the week, bugging him for time to record.
"Shouldn't you be in school?" Ellis would ask.
"Nah man, we don't go to school anymore," came the inevitable response. "We just want to rap."
When Ellis finally gave the kids a chance to perform, he was shocked: They had raw musical talent.
So Ellis founded the school. He envisioned a place for students who had dropped out or been kicked out of traditional schools.
"I saw a need in the community," Ellis says. "These students had been pushed out, suppressed, and depressed. They needed positive relationships with adults."
High School for Recording Arts has morphed into a project-based charter school where students take traditional classes and work on independent assignments to earn their high school credits. The reward for finishing early is access to two professional studios to record their original music.
The school's 225-student population represents a hodgepodge of problems. School administrators call them "overage and under-credited," but that doesn't begin to account for all that they are up against. Ellis says the school represents "every child left behind."
Nine in 10 of its students live in poverty. They typically arrive at 17 years old and at least one year behind in credits. Their academic ability is usually at least two years below grade level in basic skills; many possess only elementary-level knowledge in at least one subject.
By the time they get to Hip-Hop High, 39 percent have been kicked out of their previous school and nearly two-thirds have been involved in the criminal justice system. Half don't live with a parent or legal guardian and more than 70 percent are involved in gangs. About 20 percent of the female students are teen moms and nearly half of the male students are already fathers.
"We're dealing with kids no one else is engaging right now," says Paula Anderson, the school's education director and English teacher.
Yet the Minnesota Department of Education is blind to those challenges. The school is judged on its four-year on-time graduation rate, which last year was below 20 percent, one of the worst in the state.
Anderson says it would be impossible for the school to achieve a high on-time graduation rate with students who are so far behind.
"Traditional schools push their 'bad' students out to schools like us," Anderson says. "What would have been a 'drop' is now a 'transfer' on their record."
Tony Simmons, the school's director of development, watches students come in as hardened, uninterested teens, but they light up when they see the studios, he says. Before long, the students are engaged in their core courses and getting back on track to graduate.
"What traditional schools don't realize is that creativity is important to academics," he says. "We take the core essence of who they are, and their energy in school is fed around their creativity."
Phil Winden, the school's studio director, says he watches students turn their lives around through the freedom to be creative through music.
"These studios allow them to express themselves and not act it out in a violent or physical way," Winden says. "They want a chance to be in the spotlight and be heard, and once they know they are being heard, that reinforces their purpose to think about their future."
Once everyone had arrived, the school's media manager tried to focus them on recording a commercial for the weekly "Pick-Me-Up" Friday performance.
Farrar, better known as Dominoe, quickly became the No. 1 distraction. He sent the room into giggles once the camera was rolling.
"Can you put all the lights on me?" Dominoe asked.
"Why?" asked another student.
"Because I'm a star!"
Dominoe had a lot of practice getting a room's attention. When he was an infant, his mother put him and his older brother into foster care. They bounced through seven homes in the first 12 months.
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