Motivating high school students through music and media, setting them up for careers

Meeting students where they are is at the heart of the High School for Recording Arts strategy

High school is a pivotal time for young people, and leaving with no diploma or certificate can have long-lasting social and economic effects. Besides limitations on the kinds of jobs they can obtain, their earnings potential can be limited.  

One public charter school in St. Paul, Minnesota works to change the lives of students who might never finish high school by opening doors that other schools have shut.

Founded in 1998, the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) provides a nontraditional education, targeting students who’ve been expelled from – or feel out of sync with – traditional schools.

Educators connect with them through a love of hip-hop and media, and a key focus is learning about the potential careers in those industries. 

How a Music Studio Became a Life-Changing School 

“One of the things about hip-hop – and why we are able to use it as an idea around education – is that it’s literally about representing young people’s assets and abilities, respecting them and elevating their voice and allowing them to be bold in who they are and expressing themselves,” says Tony Simmons, executive director of the High School for Recording Arts.

Tony Simmons, executive director, High School for Recording Arts (Photo: HSRA)

HSRA was born out Simmons friendship with musician and rapper David T.C. Ellis, who had worked with Prince. When Prince’s record label changed and contracts ended, Ellis opened his own recording studio, Studio 4.

Simmons explains that young people from the neighborhood started showing up at the studio, wanting to know how to get their music produced.

“David would tell me, ‘Tony, I’ve got all these kids here at the studio everyday. They are smart, they are creative, but they are not in school,’” recalls Simmons.

Wanting to do something about it, Ellis’ Studio 4 launched an educational pilot program in 1996. Two years later, the Minnesota Department of Education would recognize it as a charter school. Simmons gave up his law career to help run the school with Ellis, calling it “the best decision I ever made in my life.” 

(Photo: High School for Recording Arts)

Now, the High School for Recording Arts counts 350 students with the vast majority of them living at or below the poverty level. Roughly 40% are homeless or have experienced homelessness. HSRA estimates that over the last five years, 90% of its students have graduated and each graduate has at least one college acceptance letter. 

HSRA devises individual education plans for each student along with providing advisors to assist them. Besides academics, Simmons stresses another key goal is to prepare students for careers that will enable them to live independently. 

“We are very intentional about them learning particular skills, gaining certifications, our focus is around recording arts and media arts and such,” stresses Simmons. “We really want them to learn those particular skills where we can get them into work positions, apprenticeships, internships, where they can get a living wage and they can graduate.”

Real World Experience in Media and Communication Jobs 

To that end, students get real world experience running their own record and production company called Another Level Records. They also have access to the school’s own music studios and program radio shows. All of it is intended to teach them about different roles in the music business and media companies.

“When we think about all the music we consume, podcasts we consume, Netflix binging we do, live concerts we go to, all the things that are in our society even right down to TikTok and Facebook, all the things that carry media and produce media, that’s what we train our young people to do,” says Scott Herold, director, HSRA Business of Music & Media. 

Scott Herold, director, HSRA Business of Music & Media (Photo: HSRA)

Students learn a range of skills that include writing press releases about music created by their peers and reaching out to media contacts to get that music played on radio stations across the country. Entertainment and copyright laws are also taught. 

For students interested in audio engineering, they can get certifications through Avixa, which is the trade group representing professional audiovisual and information communications industries for music software programs such as Protools and Logic. 

What’s very promising for their students, says Herold, is the expected growth in the field. Media and communication jobs are expected to grow 6% by 2031, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

For specific jobs like broadcast, audio and video technicians, with a median salary of $48,790, the  growth rate is expected to be even higher. Depending on the role, education requirements range from high school diplomas to college degrees.

Herold notes that he’s seeing a change in what media companies are looking for. “A lot of the media occupations that are out there right now are not looking for a four-year degree. They are not looking for a master’s degree. They are just looking for someone who has the ability to do the job and understands it,” he explains. 

Finding a School That Feels Like Home 

One tool the school utilizes is federal workforce money for career training internships. Herold says students have opportunities to get internships at a range of places, including media organizations such as podcast companies, radio stations, and community organizations. 

One of the community organizations the school is currently working with is the nonprofit ReConnect Rondo. Construction of I-94 in the 1950s and 1960s displaced more than 600 families and 300 businesses in the predominately Black neighborhood of Rondo in St. Paul.

ReConnect Rondo has proposed putting a land bridge over several blocks of the Interstate highway, spurring both residential and economic renewal. Twenty-year-old Andres “Ace” Kainz, is currently developing video content and social media posts for ReConnect Rondo in a paid internship through HSRA.

Andres “Ace” Kainz, graduate, High School for Recording Arts

Kainz graduated in 2021 and also attended the school’s Diverse Media Institute, a one-year program in which students can obtain a certificate in advanced audio engineering. He’s currently doing contract work as an audio engineer, setting up equipment at events ranging from theater productions to corporate events.

He credits HSRA for not only his job training skills but for providing motivation.

“As soon as I entered through the doors, not just of the doors – specifically of the studio area of the school – the atmosphere just felt like it was home. I really felt inspired just being in that environment,” he adds.

Kainz – who writes music – says he transferred to HSRA after struggling at a public high school where he felt misunderstood by teachers because of his ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.) He says things changed when he transferred to HSRA.

“It felt like this was the place that would help me actually graduate high school instead of flunking out, not even getting my GED, and having no skills. Because now, I learned how to pretty much audio engineer anything and that’s what my job is now,” explains Kainz.

He adds that his experience at HSRA including promoting songs to radio stations across the country has also boosted his confidence level. “It makes me feel like I can get any job in this field,” he adds. 

Claire Nybeck, student, High School for Recording Arts

Confidence is also something Claire Nybeck is feeling after switching to HSRA. ”I like being around the creatives. I may not make music but watching the process of people making music is really cool and is really fun to be around,” says the eleventh grader. 

Nybeck is interested in public relations and is getting hands-on experience through an internship for Ramsey County. She recalls not showing up for school much before transferring to HSRA.

“I was living with my sister, but I wasn’t there very much. I wasn’t really focused on anything until I went to that school,” says Nybeck. One important lesson she’s learned is her potential.

“I learned I basically can do anything that I put my mind to,” stresses Nybeck. 

Setting the Stage for Other Schools to Follow Suit 

Meeting students where they are is at the heart of the school’s strategy.

“We know that educating our students requires more than academic content. It requires everything else too. It requires reaching the whole student and designing a space where that whole student can express themselves without judgment and thrive in that,” says Michael Lipset, director of Social Impact at the school.

Michael Lipset, director, HSRA Social Impact

He says resources such as food, clothing and help with housing is made available to students. And the model has led to the formation of the nonprofit 4 Learning, which he co-founded with Ellis and Simmons and he co-directs.

He says the nonprofit is designed to help other schools and districts learn more about what HSRA does. The organization is currently working with about a dozen other schools across the country. 

While the passion for hip-hop and media ignites the spark for students to attend school, the goal for them is to learn skills they can transfer to any career pursuit. 

Says Simmons, “We don’t have a school where we judge ourselves by how many music superstars we have or artists. It’s really about how can our young people become producers and creators in whatever field or endeavor they choose.”