Hip-Hop High

Can Mt. Airy's Isaac Ewell turn a $4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation into a successful network of success-driven charter schools in low-income urban black communities?

By Paul Farber
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Jan. 11, 2006

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Along with an assortment of baby accessories and tall folded stacks of the twins' clothes on their dining room table, the home is decorated with a collection of diasporic paintings and sculptures from Brazil and Tanzania.

"We've feng-shui-zied this place," says Ewell. In the living room Ewell's teenage son Shamar, a 10th-grader at New Media, is slouched over on the couch, asleep with the TV on.

If Ewell's eldest son is to inherit his father's work ethic, he has many late-night meetings and early-morning business calls ahead of him. Despite growing up poor in the inner city, the former senior-class president of Trenton Central High School thinks he made the best of a bad situation. "I had a weak foundation," says Ewell. "The schools I went to were sub-par-they were definitely inferior schools. I've survived off of hustle and flow."

With the support of his mother and several teachers (including one teacher named Jerri Morrison, who ironically is now submitting a proposal to open a BAEO/Gates small school), Ewell earned a bachelor's degree in history from Morehouse and a master's degree at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. He's also worked in various corporate and grassroots organizations as a lobbyist, consultant and educator. Though his goals center on uplifting the black underclass, he admits his objectives are explicitly tied to his desire to achieve material success-namely to one day be rich.

"Jokers told me that growing up money isn't everything," he says. "But the ones that say that, they got dough. I had a dream that I when I graduated from college, I was gonna work in the stock market and get a candy-apple-red BMW convertible. I was real clear I was gonna get all this. Now my goal is to become wealthy and help create more wealthy black folk."

Ewell-who never got his Beemer, but does drive a shiny red Volvo SUV-exemplifies the ambitions of a burgeoning group of young African-Americans across a variety of professional fields: to use the language and imagery of the music they grew up with to imagine the possibilities of upward social mobility.

Students can mix their own music in a well-equipped studio.

"The same critique, perception, worldview, attitude and disposition that hip-hop artists bring to the music, hip-hop generationers bring to their professions," says Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture. "I see hip-hop generationers who are parents, educators, artists and activists excited about the possibilities for hip-hop being used as a tool to reach students in elementary and high schools. Elite educators are concerned about the testing of such curriculum to measure its effectiveness, but hip-hop artists/educators are convinced if it helps students to connect to the material and get excited about learning, that's half the battle."

Ewell, who in addition to growing up a hip-hop fan operated an independent record label in the late '90s, has a vision for bringing hip-hop music and culture into the small schools project. "I'm trying to empower my people," he says. "For me it's a question of how we intellectualize and institutionalize the culture."

For guidance, Ewell has turned to the High School for the Recording Arts in St. Paul, Minn. Launched in 1996 as a pilot program for last-chance high school students interested in the music industry, the school has grown into an acclaimed and accredited learning enclave with state-of-the-art recording facilities, a local radio show and an internationally distributed record label. Ewell first heard about the school at a BAEO-sponsored meeting in Philadelphia from its creator David T.C. Ellis and his partner and program director Tony Simmons.

Success is sweet: At the High School for the Recording Arts in St. Paul, Minn., students can buy CDs in a snack machine.
The High School for the Recording Arts is located in a 20,000-square-foot converted factory in St. Paul and now boasts more than 200 students, many with histories of learning and behavioral difficulties. The school has been nicknamed Hip-Hop High for its innovative approach to utilizing the culture in its context-driven curriculum. (Students do pursue a variety of musical outlets other than rap, including gospel, R&B and punk rock.)

Ewell sees the St. Paul school as a shining example of how he'd like his schools to be run. "Some folks say that young black kids can't learn," he says. "Here's a group of young people who go to the school where the majority of them have not been able to learn, and now they've connected with this school. Their reading scores are going up, their math scores are going up, because the administrators and advisers in the school totally get it."

At the High School for the Recording Arts students shape their own schedules and coursework with the help of advisers and work mostly from a sleekly designed common area of computer workstations with smaller breakout rooms in adjacent hallways. Students who perform well academically get after-school access to the studios, while students who get certified as engineers during the school day are offered paid employment.

"Kids are so used to education being a negative experience," says Simmons, who practiced law before becoming an educator. "If you truly believe that every person is blessed with some bent of genius, you're making them believe in themselves within an environment they've never had."

The Recording Arts school uses a competency-based program for assessing its students, who earn credits only after completing their projects. But credit isn't granted automatically, as students must demonstrate a critical understanding of their work and be able to defend their findings.

"You wouldn't believe how hard and how engaged the student can become once they start experiencing success," says Hans Erickson, a 31-year-old adviser and music facilitator. "You give them the success first, and they're like, 'Oh wait, I can do this.'"

Hit the wall: The High School for the Recording Arts was created for struggling students. It has since earned a reputation for success.
In addition to engaging its pupils' interest, the school has demonstrated relative success in improving standardized test scores, with its students equaling or outperforming comparable schools in their sponsoring district. But beyond these successes, the school promotes the idea that its music-based, student-directed curriculum offers much more than just a vocational education.

"I think you've prepared to live life," says Ellis, a former rapper under Prince's Paisley Park outfit, of those who pass through the school. "You've prepared to be a lifelong learner. You've acquired some citizenship skills. You have job-seeking skills, career skills. You've demonstrated you're efficient."

With the help of an advisory committee-which includes Current TV creative executive and Lyricist Lounge creator Anthony Marshall and hip-hop scholar Fanon Wilkins, among others-Ewell is set to help open similar recording arts schools in Brooklyn and San Francisco in 2007, and is looking to expand the model elsewhere.

Hip-Hop Schools: Next Stop, Philadelphia?

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1. Duane E. Tressler, (Baltimore, Md.), said... on Feb 6, 2014 at 12:00AM

“Interesting description of a new type of high school. These type of "magnet" schools have long been found in East Coast schools because of the ancient British/European influence. Such as high schools for humanities, liberal arts, social studies, philosophy and the classics (where I attended and later taught - Baltimore City College - third oldest public high school in America, founded 1839 - next to your second oldest secondary school which is Central High School of Philadelphia, at Ogontz and Olney Avenues founded 1839 and of a similar vein and traditions. check out both schools on their websites and Wikipedia entry articles along with oldest schools - English High School of Boston, founded 1821 and the Boston Latin School, founded in the 1690s - BCC website is http://www.baltimorecitycollege.us. Others are like our longtime rival in math/science/technology and engineering - the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (http://www.bpi.edu ) are like the longtime Bronx High School of Science”

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2. Duane E. Tressler, (Baltimore, Md.), said... on Feb 6, 2014 at 12:37AM

“(cont. from above): . . . in New York City along with Brooklyn Technical High School and N.Y.'s famous High School for the Performing Arts along with several other academic subject and themed secondary schools. Boston also has a Boston Latin Academy, several Massachusetts school districts and towns all have a "Classical High School" founded from the 19th Century emphasis and traditions. Later math/science and "vocational" training became a fashion in the late 1800's shown by the original name of Poly as the Baltimore Manual Training School in 1883. By early 20's-Carver and Merganthaler Voc-Techs. Even northern Virginia's several counties cooperated to found the Thomas Jefferson High School for Technology. There are a number of various "arts" high schools around the USA focusing on painting, sculpture, music, dancing, stage/screen acting, etc. which have various levels of success but mostly provide lots of opportunity and holding the roving interest & attention-span of adolescents.”


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