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?
In Philadelphia Ewell has been in serious discussions with Mama's Boys, a local hip-hop and R&B production and management company owned by Jerome Hipps and Michael McArthur, who've been responsible for melding sounds for the likes of Musiq Soulchild and Jill Scott.
The two sponsored a weekly empowerment workshop series last summer titled D.A.S.H. (Destined to Achieve Successful Heights), and are now looking to start their own full-time charter school in the same mold as the St. Paul recording arts school. Negotiations are still underway-no proposal has been submitted yet-but as Hipps sees it, their concept of empowerment education is a perfect fit.
"I hated textbook learning," says Hipps, the Lehigh-educated CEO. "But if you give me a project, I'm engaged. And some people can't relate to that. You succumb to the way people give you statistics about learning. But when you go out to the real workforce, that's not how it happens."
Ewell agrees. "American society, especially in urban areas, is so dynamic, and in such great need, I don't think one system alone can fix it. You know the whole 'It takes a village to raise a child'-we're all about improving the quality of life."
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It's a frigid Minnesota morning in December, and Isaac Ewell has sponsored a trip for Jerome Hipps and D.A.S.H. director Brandon Pankey to visit the High School for the Recording Arts.
"When we talk about education, sometimes it's too theoretical," says Ewell, who's visited the school six times in the last 10 months. "You need to show folks where it's happening. That's the thing about this school. It's a proven model. I want them to see my word is my bond."
And in the school's Studio A, it's clear the student musicians are handling their business. Sitting behind a 32-by-8 mixing console and white flat-screen Macintosh computer, 16-year-old musician Devon Johnson is mastering a slew of bass-booming beats he plans to sell.
Here, because extracurricular pursuits are viewed as connected to academic ones, students are encouraged to be entrepreneurial. "I'll never leave this school," says Johnson, as he plays one of his instrumentals from his iPod.
In the conference room for the school's label Another Level Records, Simmons plays samples on his laptop from student compilations on topics ranging from HIV/AIDS prevention to boosting self-esteem.
"This school is a movie," says Hipps.
In a section called Community Space in the back of the school, there's a stage and lunch tables. Here, every Wednesday, students perform music, make announcements and even answer trivia questions for cash. At the moment the school's gospel choir, backed by a drummer, is singing onstage:
"I've overcome some things/ In search of all my dreams/ Now there's no stopping me ... from my destiny."
When the ensemble finishes, Ellis, who runs this event, invites Ewell to come up to address the room.
"I want to thank you for hosting me again," he says to the 100 or so students in the room. "Every time I come I try to bring other folks. And when I'm not here, I'm always talking about you."
After describing what BAEO is and his role as the Small Schools Project director, he shares the plans for replicating their school back in Philadelphia.
"If we have our way, we'd love to see a high school for the recording arts in New York, in San Fran, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Japan," he says. "We want to see this go global. These cats have picked up on this. They see the value in connecting youth with the music and media that's so important to all of you."
Paul Farber (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer from Philadelphia.
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