"A lot of these kids wouldn't even be in school if it wasn't for a place like this," Ellis said on a visit for the opening day of the school year. "Traditional schools are losing, like, half their kids. It works for some, but not for a lot of them."
Charters like Media Arts are public schools, paid for with tax dollars but run by private organizations. California charters tend to serve inner-city neighborhoods, and many are filled with impoverished students fleeing underperforming, violence-plagued neighborhood public schools. Some of the most successful of these schools are staunchly traditional, demanding strict discipline and requiring students to wear uniforms.
It probably goes without saying that there are no uniforms at a place that calls itself Hip Hop High.
There are rules for dress: No caps, no outward expressions of gang affiliation. But in general, this is a casual place that opens its arms to students who chafed against rules in traditional schools or who were desperate for a place where they could feel safe. Like all charters, Media Arts is required by law to accept any student who applies as long as there's space.
They are students such as Lorena Alatriste, who takes a train and two buses to get to school each morning from the Imperial Courts public housing project in Watts.
"It's a lot different from a normal school," she said. "In another school, they would just let you fall back, but here, they push you to do your work. They really care about you."
And they are students such as Tyler, who operates at a significantly higher voltage than the average teen and had trouble fitting into traditional schools. (He asked that his last name not be used.) He appears to have found a place where he can get along and stretch himself creatively, although the results can be profane and disturbing.
"Tyler is absolutely amazing," said Jacques Slade, who teaches music production at the school. "He's like a little miniature Andre 3000. . . . He's so creative right out of the box."
The media arts academy inhabits a large, plain warehouse that doesn't even try to rise to the level of industrial chic. The floor is concrete. Classrooms are arrayed along the walls of the hangar-like space, separated by chest-high partitions.
The school is tucked into a mixed industrial and residential neighborhood near the intersection of Rosecrans Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard. Some of the nation's most violent neighborhoods lie immediately to the north and east.
"There's just an extreme level of violence in their neighborhoods, extreme levels of poverty," says teacher Nasanet Abegaze.
A few minutes to 10, students begin drifting in to Abegaze's class, logging on to their computers and quietly getting to work on personal video projects, interlacing music, video and text.
Douglas Villalta, an 11th-grader, is making a movie about a friend who was stabbed to death. Premature death is not uncommon in Douglas' world.
"That's the way it is, and that's the way it's going to be," he says.
About 20 minutes into class, one of Abegaze's students comes in; his excuse, not an uncommon one, is that he was at a probation hearing.
Until this fall, Abegaze taught at John Muir Middle School in South Los Angeles, which serves a similar, if younger, population in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The curriculum, she said, didn't have much to do with her students' lives, and she taught 160 students a day, making it hard to make connections. At Media Arts, there are only 140 students in the school, and each teacher has primary responsibility for just 20 to 25.
The challenges are enormous -- she has one 12th-grader who has never learned to read -- but so are the satisfactions.
"These are students who have been kicked out of two or three schools, for the most part, and I'm just amazed by how brilliant and creative they are," she says.