by Michael Lipset, Tony Simmons and David Ellis, High School for the Recording Arts
In the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide uprisings in response to the murder of George Floyd, the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, MN partnered with the Center for Policy Design and Wilder Research Center to find out why students leave some schools and enroll in others. Rather than asking these questions from the perspective of adult researchers, we decided to empower our students to ask the questions of themselves and each other through what is known as Youth Participatory Action Research, or YPAR. What we found was that our most important innovation actually wasn’t that ‘innovative’ at all, and is something that every school can do right now.
Our school is proud to have weathered these past two years of remote, hybrid, in-person, then remote-again schooling with the same enrollment as we had before the onset of COVID-19. As a school serving a population that has had to continue their learning through the pandemics of poverty and racial violence, as well as persistent displacement of many of our students from their learning institutions, Covid has challenged our school and community in new and daunting ways, but we have remained confident, and our students have had sustained educational success throughout the crisis. This success was a result of the design and development of an at-home ‘deeper learning kits’ program. Each student was provided with laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to enable connectivity when learning did go remote, and in-home recording studio setups for the continuation of our unique, phenomenon-based, recording arts learning program. It was innovative, immediate and impactful, the right thing for an unusual time. But what we’ve learned over time is that nothing can replace the value of relationships that students can gain from personalized, effective education tailored to their individual needs. That, in fact, is our most important innovation to date.
Through the YPAR research process students recounted how, time and time again, they left their more conventional schools because they didn’t feel they had any adults in their corner. They ended up enrolling in the High School for Recording Arts because someone they knew recommended it to them – they came because of a relationship. They have stayed at the High School for Recording Arts because of the people they’ve met there and their excitement for the creative learning opportunities provided to them. Interview after interview, student after student, we heard about the five or six adults at High School for Recording Arts that students felt they could trust and call on for anything at any time. More than that, however, students felt these adults pushed them to become better learners and people.
In education, a school’s ability to push its students to succeed academically has historically been referred to as ‘academic press.’ At the High School for Recording Arts, students feel pushed academically as a result of their relationships with adults capable of seeing the potential in each student, who encourage students to see that in themselves as well. Since this study, we’ve begun calling this phenomenon ‘interpersonal press,’ or the leveraging of interpersonal relationships in order to push students to ever-greater heights of academic achievement. Through our research and practice, we have been reminded that the most important component of student success in schools, rather than some technological innovation, is rooted in the human need for connection.
In addition to identifying relationships as the keystone to our success during the pandemic, our most recent development stemming from our experience in the pandemic was to launch a new non-profit, called 4 Learning. This non-profit is designed to support other schools in learning the best practices and design features that High School for Recording Arts has been doing successfully since its founding. 4 Learning has already begun serving schools and school districts across the U.S.
As educators continue weathering the storm of COVID-19 and beyond, we at the High School for Recording Arts want to offer a word of encouragement to all. Despite the challenges of our time, the difficulty of managing government mandates, testing and remote learning, a relationship is always as easy to build as a door is to knock on. We want you to know that we’re with you, we see you, and we wish you strength as you continue striving to serve our students in the best ways you know how.