By focusing on relationships, HSRA places human needs before academic achievement, understanding that one leads to the other.
Michael Lipset and Dr. Linda Nathan
The United States has officially been in some form of lockdown or another due to the COVID-19 pandemic for more than one year. Even as a new administration gets settled into the White House, the timeline for vaccinating all adults is ahead of schedule, and a new Secretary of Education digs into his work, educators continue battling the challenges of this moment. As educators ourselves, we wanted to better understand some of the lessons learned in this difficult context and identify what it might mean for education and learning long after the pandemic is over.
We chose to study one specific school: High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) in St. Paul, Minnesota. HSRA is a Black-founded, Black-operated institution serving a high population of students of color who have been pushed and/or kicked out of the conventional school system. Even through COVID-19, this school excelled in its sector as an alternative re-engagement high school. We don’t want to paint the school as some nirvana, however, we believe this school’s ability to persist through these times, while serving a student population the mainstream system has failed, will provide lessons relevant to any learning community.
At HSRA, all faculty, no matter their specific role, are called Facilitators of Learning. While speaking with leaders of all roles and ages (including students), we learned HSRA’s unique approach to human capital has sustained the school through this difficult time. And, it is this unique approach that became the focus of our inquiry.
The Learning Environment
HSRA was founded in 1998 when David “TC” Ellis, one of Minnesota’s first rap artists and protégé of the late Prince Rogers Nelson, opened a recording studio in downtown St. Paul, MN. When he realized the young people showing up to his studio during their school hours had more talent and tenacity than his paying clients, he asked why they weren’t in school. Their answers don’t surprise most of us—they got kicked out, their schools didn’t represent them, and they weren’t learning anything relevant, even when they were there.
TC, the product of St. Paul Open School led by Dr. Wayne Jennings during TC’s time there, decided to turn his recording studio into a public charter school with the help of his former principal. HSRA became one of the nation’s first public charter schools as a result.
Under the leadership of Executive Director, Tony Simmons, HSRA has had to make some important innovations throughout its growing stages in order to maintain a school culture representative of its students—a population in which only 5% of students identify as White. Specifically, HSRA has made hiring faculty of color a top priority. But, in a state where only 5% of all teachers are people of color, they had to get creative.
By deemphasizing the centrality of the content-specific classroom educator and uplifting the people whose jobs more explicitly focus on the development of relationships and social emotional competencies with its students, 55 of HSRA’s 70 staff members serve as non-traditional educators. These educators are majority Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and are from the same communities as HSRA’s students.
According to Joey Cienian, the Education Director, “It’s not about figuring out whether students are performing in a traditional academic sense or not. At most schools, if the answer is “no,” then the response is to push more academics. It’s about doing everything we can to meet the students where they’re at and bring the learning to them.” This means building up the whole student and filling in the gaps to support their readiness to learn.
At HSRA, there are adults who are content advisors (called teachers in most schools), personal advisors, case managers, street workers, and community workers. The street team consists of non-traditional educators who go out to locate potential enrollees and current students to re-engage them. Community workers focus on how to meet kids’ basic needs of housing, food, and employment.
With these varied roles, the school doesn’t privilege one function over another. Each department can specialize in the unique yet interconnected roles they play in the school’s environment.
Utilizing a Hub and Spoke Advisory-Service Model
In most schools that have an established advisory system, teachers and advisors are one in the same. At HSRA, personal advisors and content advisors are two distinct groups with important overlaps. This innovation allows content advisors to focus more on content and personal advisors to focus more on supporting students in everything from managing their academic loads to accessing resources for housing, counseling, healthcare, daycare, and employment.
This doesn’t mean a strict bifurcation between roles, but it does establish a demarcation of roles that clarifies and simplifies the foci of each. The advisory system serves as the hub to the spokes of the school’s many services, which include state-of-the-art recording studios, a professional certification program, and connections to the wraparound services mentioned above.
The importance of personal advisors, the advisory system, and having the demarcation of roles was on full display this summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. This horrific event happened less than eight miles from HSRA’s campus. And, in response, the school hosted an internationally attended community meeting via Facebook Live that was moderated by Tiki Blackmore, one of HSRA’s lead personal advisors.
By having a clearly defined role focused on supporting and providing resources to improve the socio-emotional health of her students—and not having the sole responsibility of content instruction—Blackmore and the rest of the advisory team could immediately respond to the moment. And, her content advisor colleagues could provide an academic component relating to the moment and continue providing learning instruction knowing, between the content advisors and personal advisors, students were receiving the emotional support they needed. Together, they are set up to collaborate in providing a fully engaged, wraparound, social-emotional learning environment.
It’s not about me; it’s about the kids’ needs. That’s why I’m so grateful for those with caseloads who are out in the field engaging with students and getting them ready to learn.
Lead Science Facilitator, High School for Recording Arts
At HSRA, advisory has created an adaptive infrastructure that isn’t seat-based, time-based, or curriculum-driven. Personal advisors’ primary responsibility is to understand what their students need in order to thrive and then to work towards creating those optimal conditions.
The role of the personal advisor is, as Cienian says, “To bring an asset-based, authentic, care-based approach to starting a conversation with a young person about their goals, needs, and living situation. HSRA calls each student—returning and new—and asks: How are you? What are you doing? What do you need? Struggling with housing? Anything? Need a gift card? Food? Then, the personal advisor empathizes, and together, they make a personal learning plan for the student. There are a lot of students who are engaged because of this opportunity to relate.”
By focusing on relationships, HSRA places human needs before academic achievement, understanding that one leads to the other. This means placing the well-being of students as full people with needs and wants before asking solely about homework, assignments, and test scores.
It’s not that learning, deeper learning in fact, isn’t the school’s goal, but it must be accompanied by also deeply knowing the school’s young people and community. If our education system hopes to improve and achieve its herculean purpose of preparing every young person in America to contribute to society in a socially just, democratic manner, we have to recognize that teachers can’t do everything, especially those serving the highest need students. This school has said, “You’re primarily a teacher, an advisor, or a service provider, and we’re going to let you do that thing well.”
By emphasizing a school culture rooted in the lived experiences of students, HSRA primes itself to respond to students during crises like those presented in 2020 with criticality, social justice, and love.
Pandemic Learning at HSRA
HSRA has a small crew of full-time teachers (often called content advisors) who manage the majority of the core content distributed to students across the school’s remote learning platforms before and during COVID-19. In addition, given the student population’s high needs, the school has hired seven certified special educators.
Renee Swanson, Lead Science Facilitator and content advisor, speaks to this important innovation: “It’s not about me; it’s about the kids’ needs. That’s why I’m so grateful for those with caseloads who are out in the field engaging with students and getting them ready to learn.”
She goes further to describe that, as a result of the pandemic, she has broadened her views on the role of content advisors: “It’s about changing the role of the teacher to support what students need outside of the classroom. I have to be ready for them. I have to design to them.”
In many secondary schools, where teachers are absolutely stretched to the limit, they urge administration to hire more teachers—or content advisors in HSRA’s case. Renee brings a more nuanced perspective which reflects her school’s culture: “It would be nice to have another science teacher but that won’t strengthen our school.” Renee can delineate how her role has changed because of the pandemic, and she is grateful for the fact that she works in a school that understands and acts to provide that support.
In 2020, during the pandemic, the school expanded its outreach efforts and mobilized a street team of non-traditional educators who go out to locate potential enrollees and current students to re-engage them. Haben Gebreghergish, Lead Math Facilitator, puts it this way, “Before (the pandemic) you might wait for students to come to you—and they would come—now, knowing what students are going through, you have to go to them. That’s been a big shift.”
Irrespective of where students are at, we now know we need to bring the learning to them, not just on campus but wherever they are in the world.
Executive Director, High School for Recording Arts
Dan Frey, the Director of Student Engagement, responsible for tracking and interpreting student attendance, enrollment, and credit accrual data, notes an important shift between the Fall 2019 and Fall 2020 terms.
In 2019, he says students came to enroll, and the school had to work to keep up with demand. With the onset of the pandemic, the team has had to become more outward-facing and pro-active since students can’t come to the school. To do this, Dan and his team engage in daily reviews of the enrollment process to identify where students stand and what’s left to complete.
For Tabitha Wheeler, the Lead Social Worker (and current Minnesota Social Worker of the Year), and Ray Womack, Assistant Director of Student Support, the pandemic has meant new challenges and new opportunities for the development of exactly the kinds of relationships HSRA emphasizes.
Tabitha says the pandemic has meant gaining access to supporting other students she might not have been able to in-person, particularly young men for whom something like school counseling might come with an added stigma when conducted in-person.
Tabitha tells the story of one student who lost a friend to gun violence this year. When he met with Tabitha in a counseling session, he wondered why he had never met with her before. Tabitha hypothesizes that this student would likely not have come to see her in a school setting where his peers may have witnessed and judged him for seeking counseling.
On the other hand, Tabitha has noticed teen pregnancies and teen parenting rising among HSRA’s student population at a time when access to childcare is even more restricted. Housing challenges have also risen, which is striking at a school that already serves a student population in which, on average, 40% face housing challenges in a non-pandemic climate.
To respond to these issues, Ray and his team find students in the community—including locating those without housing wherever they are—and deliver devices, at-home deeper learning kits for project-based learning; WiFi hotspots; conduct home visits; and deliver food, clothes, and other crucial items.
Ray refers to his department as “the glue” of the school saying, “We don’t leave our students behind regardless of their situation. If they can’t come to us, we’re going to go out and find them, show them that we care.”
Distance, NOT Disconnected
Despite the distanced nature of the past 12 months, HSRA is not disconnected from its students, its community, or its roots in the recording arts. In fact, the motto of the school for 2020-21 has become, “Distance, NOT Disconnected.”
What we’ve learned is that, when there is no schoolhouse, or when the schoolhouse is unsafe, we have to actively bring students into their learning by building a culture that students want to join. By allowing content advisors (teachers) to focus on academic subjects, personal advisors to focus on advising, special education teachers to focus on special education services, and wraparound service providers to focus on the active provision of services, all while collaborating in real time, the school can do just that.
Simmons reflects on the challenge he set forth for the school at the onset of the pandemic, “Irrespective of where students are at, we now know we need to bring the learning to them, not just on campus but wherever they are in the world. We know we need to do this beyond COVID because it removes place as a necessary precondition for learning.”
Even before the American onset of COVID-19, HSRA had been creating a learning environment suitable for and conducive to the needs of its highly mobile student population, which meant a flattened understanding of its many staff members’ roles and mechanisms to make learning accessible remotely. The difference today, however, is the necessity for everyone, from certified teachers to the school’s student outreach team (non-traditional teachers), to go to the students.
Although there have been positive outcomes from this almost fully-remote year, the absence of the schoolhouse has been profound. The school has to work twice as hard to build community virtually and maintain that cherished sense of family that builds so naturally in-person.
We’re not advocating for the continuation of the context produced by the pandemic but rather to continue to explore new ways of learning. We believe the practices highlighted at HSRA can help shepherd the education system as a whole in new directions. There is an urgent need to break molds, to stop being concerned with more didactic models of teaching and learning, and to promote learning models representative of the entire student population, regardless of background or circumstance. The very lives of our youth depend on it.