Hip Hop High Crosses the Continental Divide: Transporting Charter School Programming from St. Paul, Minnesota to Montreal, Quebec

by Michael Lipset, Ed.M. Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ph.D. Student - McGill University
and Tony Simmons, Executive Director of the High School for Recording Arts

How does one transport a school model across international contexts? What components of the school model are transferrable, what components are not? How does one discover the appropriate balance between fidelity and flexibility in the original model so as to properly adapt the model to a new context with respect for the local community’s needs? Such are the questions currently being explored by a group of educators, researchers, and community organizations working between Montreal, QC, Canada, and St. Paul, MN, United States.

In this case, the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, MN has a story that positions it as the model worthy of replication. I say ‘worthy’ because of its tremendous track record for innovation in education, and for its impressive results with a student body widely recognized as “hard to reach”: students who are mostly dropped out, overaged, and under-credited. Of course, many schools have been able to succeed in educating so-called “at-risk” student populations, but none have worked with the most severely at-risk and done so by as thoroughly incorporating hip hop culture and art forms into their school model as High School for Recording Arts. The school that is the beneficiary of the transference of the HSRA model and undergoing reform toward becoming the first, fully-immersive urban arts school in Canada will be referred to as Montreal High School, or MHS, for the sake of anonymity, given the ongoing context of a university-level research project.

David "TC" Ellis, founder of HSRA

David "TC" Ellis, founder of HSRA

The High School for Recording Arts (HSRA), affectionately referred to as “Hip Hop High,” began as a recording studio under the guidance of Paisley Park Records’ artist David “TC” Ellis in 1998. In the early days before it was a school, young people from St. Paul would show up to Ellis’ recording studio instead of attending class at their respective places of education. The students preferred the culture at Ellis’ studio and the opportunity to make music over their experiences in school. So Ellis, himself a product of unique approaches to education, decided to turn his recording studio into a school for the young people who were consistently showing up there. Ellis incorporated these factors into the school’s founding charter to define the school’s target population.

Over the years, HSRA has exemplified a number of practices that make the school successful, unique, and innovative. These distinguishing factors have resulted in HSRA’s ability to graduate countless numbers of students over its near twenty year history with 100% of them being accepted into some form of higher education. Additionally, in any given year roughly 60% of students enrolled at HSRA have already been in contact with the criminal justice system, a percentage that drops to 11% by the time students graduate. Here is a list of their core values taken from HSRA’s charter management organization, Studio 4:

  1. OUR STUDENTS are composed of overaged, undercredited, opportunity youth. From the day our first school opened, our students have been at the center of everything we do.
  2. THE STUDIO MODEL refers both to the unique creative learning programs (listed below) we have developed in service of our students and to the architectural design of our facilities.
    1. Studio 4 All Access Pass incentivizes student academic achievement by providing extended access to the recording studio for students on nights and weekends with alternative hours and flexible scheduling.
    2. Industry-Level Certifications in the recording arts, digital media technology, and the music industry prepare students for employment by providing them with real-world experience.
    3. VIP (Visual Inclusion Program) is an asset-based, reverse-inclusion program that uses project-based learning through photography, videography, and graphic design to build upon the creative leadership of students with learning differences. The goal of the VIP Program is to develop students who have been identified as having special needs in a previous learning environment and develops them as leaders within a learning environment where they act as instructors to their peers.
    4. Another Level Records is a student-led prototype of the recording industry that allows students to identify talent and to create, promote, and distribute their products to the world.
    5. Studio 4 All Access (Top 4 Countdown) is a student-run Radio/Live Video Music/Streaming/Social Media Info Broadcast (formerly known as “The Fo-Show”)   
    6. Architectural Design Our school and recording studios have been uniquely designed to maximize the potential of our facilities for learning through the recording arts and technology.
  3. SCHOOL CULTURE includes culturally sensitive hiring practices, a remixed advisory model for project-based learning, and is guided by a dedication to social justice. Studio 4’s guiding values are family, community, education, and respect. Teachers teach with a critical lense toward student empowerment. Relationships between students and adults are a first priority.
  4. ALTERNATIVE ACCOUNTABILITY MEASURES, developed in conjunction with Studio 4 by the National Association of Charter School Accountability, facilitate proper expectations, communication, and understanding between Studio 4 schools and their authorizers.
  5. STUDIO 4 CHARTER MANAGEMENT ORGANIZATION provides school leaders, advisors, and resident industry professionals in Studio 4 schools with the training, structure, and expertise necessary to successfully serve Studio 4 students. (Lipset, 2016)

Click here to watch HSRA students perform their NAACP Image Award-nominated song "Royalty" with the Grammy-nominated ensemble The Sounds of Blackness. This song was recorded and produced at HSRA, and the video was filmed there as well. 

These five distinguishing factors work together to produce a school rooted in student interests that is  capable of equipping students to thrive in a challenging world and provide the resources necessary to help them establish healthy lifestyles. These programs maximize infrastructure that facilitates strong academic development and artistic exploration between students and adults in the school. Each component of HSRA developed organically over time, so how do those involved in the transition process at Montreal High School affect positive change in a school with its own history and reputation?


Montreal High School in Montreal, Quebec

Montreal High School in Montreal, Quebec

Montreal High School stands in partnership with McGill University’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education and local community arts organizations, as well as HSRA. Together, MHS, McGill University, and these community organizations make up a three-part model for school turnaround that has been rarely seen before. If this approach to school turnaround can effectively increase student achievement, student attendance, teacher efficacy, and job satisfaction, organizers will have a hip-hop-based model for school reform no single school, university, or community organization has yet been able to develop on its own. But why the “urban arts”? Before the official decision was made to undergo a comprehensive school reform effort at MHS, the in-house community learning center, which serves as the hub of community organizing between the school and community, presented a number of extracurricular options rooted in hip-hop culture and art forms to students. These options quickly became the most popular choices for students, and often drew more attendance from students than regular classrooms. As a result, the school, community learning center, and district identified the urban arts as representative of student interests and gave MHS the green-light to embark upon this journey.

Students from HSRA's Check Yo' Self Sexual Awareness program

Students from HSRA's Check Yo' Self Sexual Awareness program

In an educational landscape where school turnaround efforts have historically necessitated re-staffing (of 20 charter management organizations who take on school turnaround work, zero were willing to do so without the ability to re-staff (How to Recruit High-Performing Charter Management Organizations to a New Region 2015)), and at a time when educators across North America are disproportionately white (82% of teachers in the US are white and all but two teachers at MHS are white) (US DOE 2016), one might argue that the success of North America’s education reform efforts requires a consideration of school turnaround strategies that addresses the cultural gap between teachers and students without re-staffing an entire school. The project for  Montreal High School to successfully reform itself in the image of HSRA offers educators a unique chance to pursue one of the most radical revolutionary reforms in the world of high school education, with implications that could travel across the continent. But where should MHS begin its efforts? How should a traditional school model go about reimagining itself in the image of a school whose very origin story is nearly impossible to replicate in this particular context? 

The student-curated Up Next gallery in MHS

The student-curated Up Next gallery in MHS

So far, Montreal High School has successfully worked to integrate artists into classroom instruction by pairing local teaching artists with classroom teachers. Montreal High has also built a recording studio for its students and developed a student-run art gallery where students curate their own shows through an emerging critical curation method. So far, students have exhibited signs of increased academic engagement with teachers, reflecting similar levels of increased job satisfaction. The establishment of an adult book club for critical consciousness within the school represents a desire on behalf of the teachers to incorporate critical pedagogies into their work, which would bring the school’s culture closer to that found in the High School for Recording Arts without re-staffing the school. Montreal High School has also recently applied for a grant through Best Buy to fund an in-school video production studio. This programming will be modeled on the High School for Recording Arts’ Visual Inclusion Program and will be meant to serve students in the school who face challenges with learning disabilities. Next year, in an attempt to further centralize student voice and choice in the curriculum at Montreal High School, teachers and administrators hope to unfold an advisory model for project-based learning inspired by the High School for Recording Arts’ own remixed advisory model as well as  the “resource room” system already in existence in MHS. Resource rooms have thus far served to support students in times of need at MHS. The advisory model would expand the role of the resource room, and turn what once served as a place for students to find someone to advocate for them on their behalf into a space that also provides mentorship, arts instruction, project guidance, and a cohort of fellow learners.

Keeping in mind that comprehensive school reform efforts take anywhere from 5-10 years to run their course (Desimone 2002), Montreal High School has much to be proud of in its first 1.5 years of reform. As the three branches of our tripartite model continue to exercise our strengths, assess our weaknesses, and develop a learning organization dedicated to ensuring student success in Montreal High School, we hope that the next 3-8 years prove just as fruitful. Regardless of the outcome, this effort will provide a unique look into what it means to engage schools in culturally relevant comprehensive school reform efforts through the lens of one particular cultural movement: hip-hop. Keep your eyes trained on the Center for Artistry and Scholarship for more blog posts covering this radically transformative opportunity, and leave your suggestions for school leaders, teachers, artists and researchers involved in the project in the comments below.


Works Cited

Desimone, L. (December 07, 2002). How Can Comprehensive School Reform Models Be Successfully Implemented?. Review of Educational Research, 72, 3, 433-79.

How to Recruit High Performing Charter Management Organizations to a New Region: Results from the 2015 CMO Survey. (2016). National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Retrieved from http://www.publiccharters.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/CMO-Recruitment-Survey-Results.pdf

King, J. B., McIntosh, A., & Bell-Ellwanger, J. (2016, July). The State of Diversity in the Educator Workforce. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/highered/racial-diversity/state-racial-diversity-workforce.pdf

Lipset, Michael. (August, 2016). Studio 4 Charter Management Organization: Creative & Innovative Alternative School Models for Opportunity Youth. Studio 4, Inc.

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