High School for Recording Arts: A Conversation with Tony Simmons and Joey Cienian

Q&A   21 December 2017
By Tony Simmons, High School for Recording Arts, and Joey Cienian, High School for Recording Arts


Educating young people should be about knowing their passions and interests—student motivation is key to engagement. They should be able to come to school and feel like they are truly being seen and heard. That’s how I relate to our young people.

Tony Simmons
Executive Director, High School for Recording Arts

Q: To lead off, Tony and Joey, could you give a brief overview of how you found your way to High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) and what roles you’ve played there?

Tony: I assisted the founder (David T.C. Ellis) in starting the school and have served as the program or executive director since 2001. There was a short period of time where I primarily focused on development, but I’ve always been in a leadership role in terms of the mission, support, and direction of our school. Before I came to HSRA full-time, I was a practicing entertainment attorney. That’s how I met David—representing him while he was a recording artist with Prince.

Joey: I’ve been at HSRA for seven years. I have been an advisor; social studies, math, and language arts teacher; and lead academic coach. For the last two years, I’ve been the Director of Educational Programming. In that capacity, I work with all of our teachers and shareholders who provide programming in the classroom and help create projects that are student-focused, creative, and continue to build the infrastructure to fulfill our mission.

Q: What about this work inspires you to wake up every day and go after it?

Tony: I see so much of myself in the work. Growing up, I saw myself as an artist who had a passion for music. That drove me to come to school every day. But, I was one of those kids who tuned out almost everything that didn’t involve music. I can totally relate to our young people who have a strong creative side, a desire to express themselves, and are hungry to find a place they can be their authentic selves.

If it wasn’t for my strong family structure, I may have dropped out. For our young people, unfortunately, they deal with a lot of unstable family systems. In fact, some are already living on their own, so the prospect of dropping out is very real. That’s unfortunate. Educating young people should be about knowing their passions and interests—student motivation is key to engagement. They should be able to come to school and feel like they are truly being seen and heard. That’s how I relate to our young people.

As an African-American, I also understand many of the conditions our students confront on a daily basis (both inside and outside of school). When those two things—student motivation and issues of race—came together at the inception of our school, it was something that really moved me to understand how to get these young people the best type of experience possible. An experience similar to what I had growing up in the New York City public school system.

The NYC system does a pretty good job of appreciating the arts and exposing young people to it. From elementary school, we had a pretty rich musical program. I was fortunate to be in schools that really valued that side of how young people learn. The other side of it is that these weren’t just music teachers. They were great relationship builders. They took the time to get to know me well. Music has a wonderful way of individualizing. Having that individualization be an integral part of the creation process at HSRA is what drives me every day.




For me, teaching is politics at a very local level. There’s a political component to patience and compassion. There’s a political component to bringing in therapy and wraparound services. There’s a political component to listening to youth and letting them have a position of prominence and power in a structural system.

Joey Cienian
Director of Educational Programming, High School for Recording Arts

Joey: I share a lot of the same perspective as Tony when it comes to student focus and engagement. We are designing a creative and therapeutic space that is set up to foster patience and work with young people where they are, in engaging ways.  

As for my personal background, I grew up in a very structured, traditional system all the way through college, where I became interested in activism and getting involved in social justice causes. I worked in the community as a political organizer for a while. When I became interested in teaching, I came at it from the same social justice lens. For me, teaching is politics at a very local level. There is a political component to patience and compassion. There’s a political component to bringing in therapy and wraparound services. There’s a political component to listening to youth and letting them have a position of prominence and power in a structural system. That’s so important in our school systems, and it’s often lacking.

As an educator and administrator, creating spaces where students can express themselves creatively and learn through doing allows them to explore the deeper structures of their creative minds and interact with the outside world. I’ve found an enormous amount of energy, motivation, and connection to my community because, in the contemporary world, the school is where so many different sociological problems come to be solved. The modern school often doesn’t have the capacity or structure set up to handle all of the needs and opportunities that our students bring.

Through HSRA, I find an enormous amount of inspiration. It’s such a wonderful spot to do the work every day and keep pushing forward because I see the American school system as being extremely experimental. There’s a lot of room right now for growth, development, and sharing.

Q: As an “alternative” environment, do you feel this label prevents your work from spreading?

Tony: It’s certainly something we have to battle. Oftentimes, particularly in an urban setting, when people talk about who the “alternative” students in the “alternative” schools are, essentially what they mean are the brown, black, and poor young people who are often from family systems that are strained or dissolved. These young people have been abandoned and are often just pushed along their educational journey or pushed out altogether.

I say that as a premise because engaging them has us (HSRA) take on their stigmas. Their marginalization is usually cast upon us in certain circles. It commonly shows up in terms of accountability and evaluations, but it even shows up in the broader perception of the community. Because of that, we have been very intentional in confronting it.

At the forefront, we talk about the brilliance of our young people—their high-level creativity, resourcefulness, resiliency, and entrepreneurial skills. We do that first for our students so that they know we see that in them. We want them to know they have lived and thrived within their unique circumstances and have acquired skills that become obvious to anyone who is willing to pay attention. That helps us in terms of the learning journey we want to take our young people through and the types of relationships we want to build.

As a result, we’ve been able to prove to the student and the community that they are able to perform at a very high level when given the right space and opportunity. The arts are a great way to express that. Beyond that, what we allow learners to do—take ownership of the learning space, develop student leadership, collaborate and put together projects and enterprises, and create products that are disseminated throughout the community and world—makes people’s lives better. Doing it in those alternative ways allows us to best know who our students are and how to best engage them as learners. That term, “alternative,” is aptly applied but has two sides to it.

Joey: We believe that school doesn’t end at the walls of our building. The community is rife with experiential learning. Our students can transcend and flip some of the stereotypes that are often thrown upon them when given a chance to show their inherent genius, skillset, and leadership qualities.

Right now, we have students who are volunteering as student mentors for our grade school and middle school students, and just the other day, we had one of the principals tell us that our youth participation has led to significant engagement and broader ramifications for a few students who were previously having problems.

We have students who are collaborating with local businesses and have built projects around music, art, and entrepreneurialism. Right now, a few students are working with a local business to write a song and produce a viral video. We have students who are participating in the city council and school board, even though we’re an independent charter. They are presenting at meetings and are engaged in community events. Our school is known and respected by local politicians, and our students’ voices are heard and respected in that space.



We really take the time to deal with ourselves before getting in front of our students.  

Joey Cienian
Director of Educational Programming, High School for Recording Arts

Q: We often hear about learners (and educators) who struggle transitioning from a traditional environment to a learner-centered one like HSRA. How do you train your educators to assist new learners in harnessing the possibility of learner-centered education?

Joey: We have a very different pedagogical practice here than what most people have experienced. It’s a different type of teaching. There are a lot of things we do in training that help people detox as traditional educators.

Most importantly, we spend an enormous amount of time examining privilege and having courageous conversations with staff about our personal identities in the space. We talk about issues of social inequity that we are seeing and might be perpetuating, depending on who we are as individuals. We really take the time to deal with ourselves before getting in front of our students.

We spend a lot of training time on best practices in project-based, competency-based learning. Our staff uses Schoology and a flipped classroom model such that we are oftentimes building pedagogical structures that resemble a lab-based atmosphere—there are a lot of hands-on, direct transactions with teachers but not in the traditional format of a 50-minute teacher-led lecture.

It takes a lot of planning and recalibrating when it comes to measuring growth. We ask our educators to take student voice into account as they are building their classes. So, while they might start the year with a plan for how the class is going to go, the structure might remain but the content might shift dramatically depending on their classroom environment and the community they are serving. We have a system that asks our teachers to be versatile, adaptive, student-focused, and creative. We want to minimize airtime, maximize student voice, and get students physically engaged in the learning. We want them leaving the classroom, doing things, building things, and collaborating. A lot of these ideas come from the principles of deeper learning.

When it comes to students, it starts out the same way—it’s a detox process for them as well. You’re transitioning from sitting in class, not having to engage with the teacher, filling out a worksheet, turning in work sometimes, and moving on to the next class with a “D.” Now, they are in a space where they’re told you have voice, accountability, autonomy, freedom, and the opportunity to take creative steps in different directions to showcase your learning. This is a daunting transition.

Our teachers are trained to build scaffolding into all of the lessons, leading further and further to independence and freedom. For our students, we take all of this into account. Some need more time to understand our educational models and will work more closely with our teachers. And, with the help of graphic organizers and online resources through Schoology, they can bridge that gap and push themselves towards owning their education.

For new students, they are sometimes not ready or interested in diving into an independent school day where they’re building their own projects, setting up meetings with advisors and teachers, and going out into the community on their own. They need a hand. When students are ready for that freedom, we have an enormous amount built into the model for them to explore their interests.



I want to emphasize, too, that it’s not me going and talking about the difference we are making. It’s our students. Having our learners be highly visible has really made the best case.

Tony Simmons
Executive Director, High School for Recording Arts

Q: Joey mentioned that HSRA has learners who are active in local politics (working with the city council and school board). Tony, have you noticed any measurable impact at the community or political level?

Tony: We have made an impact in the community as it relates to how we serve our students and why we serve them the way we do. We have been able to express how policy needs to adjust to better understand, appreciate, and hold accountable a program like ours. When you’re dealing with young people who, from a traditional perspective, are already academically behind, you need something more aligned with a growth model, and I think we’ve been able to make that case.

When you have a system of evaluation and accountability that only looks at your school for a moment in time, that clearly doesn’t work. That kind of evaluation can send some misleading messages about the work we’re doing. It can be harmful to our students, our standing in the community, and our ability to raise funds and expand. We know there are many other young people across the country who could benefit from our practices and what we have learned. Not getting the evaluation and accountability systems right has held back programs like ours, preventing more models from taking on populations like the one we are serving and doing it in the way that we do it.

To me, this has led to an injustice. It’s really immoral that we have allowed something like inappropriate accountability measurements to hinder our innovation and our ability to be truly student-centered. So, we’ve done work to shift the way policy operates intentionally. We’ve been involved in lobbying and building strong networks of people in various stakeholder positions to come and get to know us, see our practice closely, and be able to speak to it in certain significant circles. I want to emphasize, too, that it’s not me going and talking about the difference we are making. It’s our students. Having our learners be highly visible has really made the best case.

Q: What’s on the horizon for HSRA in the next couple of years?

Tony: We’re about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our student-operated record label, Another Level Records. We started in 1998, with our students’ first CD called “HIV Ain’t No Joke,” which was a collaboration with a local community-based organization called Check Yo’ Self Health and Wellness Center who did an HIV/STD peer training and prevention campaign. Our students created a CD related to it and became peer educators  themselves. The lyrics in the songs were all research-based as a result of their participation as peer educators.  

Since then, we’ve put out 12 other compilations. We’re releasing all 20 years of music worldwide on all the music streaming services (e.g. Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, etc.) through our partnership with Tunecore. It’s such a great time to reflect and think about what our students are going to create over the next 20 years. I want for us to continue doing this better in Minnesota. We’re a community on a continuous improvement plan. We’re transparent and open to constructive feedback. But, I also know there is a huge dropout crisis across this nation, particularly affecting young people of color who are poor, and I know we can make a difference in their lives. I want to be a part of making that happen and building communities across the country in certain areas where we could bring a model like HSRA. 

Joey: I’m excited to keep doing what we’re doing and communicating with awesome educational movements across the country to keep building better practices for deeper learning and student-centered engagement. Internally, I want us to check ourselves on what we’re doing and improve upon it. Externally, I want us to evangelize on stuff we think is working and keep sharing the information. Our young people speak for themselves. We’re pumped to do another 20 years. 

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