UPDATE: REAL Prep Charter Falls Apart Leaving Students and Parents Stunned
About 12 years ago, a group of citizens in Minneapolis, Minnesota opened a public charter school like no other in the city. Beginning with 15 students, the High School of Recording Arts centered its curriculum around a recording studio.
Enrollment is now at about 200 students, and two other schools have opened in New York and Los Angeles. The model has become an icon of success for disaffected, urban youth.
Now, community leaders, educators and musicians are working to create a similar school here in Portland. They are currently gathering community support and will presenting their charter school proposal to the Portland School Board in July with the hope of opening the High School of Recording Arts Portland in the fall of 2010.
"It's hard to explain what a high school for recording arts looks like," said Imani Muhammad, community partnership coordinator for the project and organizer of the annual Youth Summit. "To actually be in the midst of the students interacting and see the day to day operations is amazing."
Muhammad, Project Director Erica Jayasuriya and several other team members recently traveled to tour the very first High School of Recording Arts in Minneapolis. What they found was a school with a 100 percent graduation rate with a student body largely from low-income families. A professional record company based in the Los Angeles school helps make the school and students money for their recordings.
"At the core is the studio. For the youth, that is their goal," she said. "They also have the design lab, for the student who isn't interested in recording, to design the album covers and promotional material."
Muhammad sees the Portland model expanding on what has already been proven to work for artistic students who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
"When you add the recording arts, you're documenting life, you can have videography, dance," she says. "Recording arts is keeping up to date with technology and what the new trends are and staying in line with what's out there."
The educational practice at the center of the program is the national Coalition of Essential Schools program and project-based learning, says Jayasuriya.
"Students are lead through initial guidance and then either the whole class, small groups or individuals work on a project," she said. "Or it is individual driven. Each student has an advisor and creates a one-on-one plan."
Mostly, though, it's about teaching students to ask questions and learn on their own with a teacher's guidance.
"We're going to work at meeting you at your strength and interest and over our time together help you expand your skills," Jayasuriya said.
Local hip-hop artists have also gotten behind the project, including Mic Crenshaw and Cool Nutz.
Crenshaw, who is currently teaching hip hop spoken word classes at Mt. Scott Learning Center, says he sees the music providing strength to students who might have otherwise given up on traditional learning structures. Indeed, the school's founder, David Ellis, believes in a "whatever works" strategy when trying to educate students.
Crenshaw has worked for years as an independent artist who taught himself nearly everything he knows. This school would equip budding artists with a set of skills before setting out on their own.
"What it does for youth is it equips them to be successful and self-sufficient," he said. "It's almost like a technical college."
He says the current public school system is not preparing some children, especially poor, urban youth, to be successful adults.
"The system is failing in a myriad of ways," he said. "There always needs to be alternatives."
Most charter schools take a year before they even attempt to apply for a charter license from the school board, which is allowed only once a year in the summer. The High School of Recording Arts Portland is hoping to have their school open in that same amount of time.
"The nice thing about working with a model that's got great research and data and statistics and is going into its 12th year, is that we get to start at the place they've grown to," Jayasuriya said.
She says potential charter schools are given a short window of time for initial funding – three years beginning in the springtime. That includes a year of planning, another year to prepare the building and curriculum for students and less than a year to finance the school's operation, before having to rely on funding from the local school district.
The project's planners want to cut the amount of time they spend officially planning – which they've already been doing for the past year — increasing the amount of time they will have grant funding with students in the building.
Currently, Jayasuriya and Muhammad are looking for parents of students 6th grade and up to contact the Portland Public Schools Board to voice their interest in the project. Students who are currently enrolled or who have left school (before graduating) can also contact the board, as the charter will allow the school to take students up to age 21.
"Believe in this, believe in giving the youth what they need," Muhammad said. "When I heard that Portland Public Schools had a Black graduation rate of 38 percent, that's a serious crisis, that moves me. When I look at something that will challenge the mainstream education and a new way to look at education, if we take this approach and go towards career paths and exploration of arts, music and culture that have been taken out of public schools because of funding or misallocation of funds, when we get back to essence that created civilization, it is a fabric of life. This model is going back to the essence of what makes us who we are as individuals and human beings."