‘Hip Hop High’ charter school in its closing days
As he offered a routine explanation of corporations in a recent class, high school economics teacher Dan Schlick hardly came across as subversive.
But just by directly talking to students, just by teaching them, Schlick was part of a self-styled staff revolt in the closing days of a Hawthorne school nicknamed Hip Hop High.
The teacher “rebellion” against an online-only curriculum marked a final stage at the Academy for Recording Arts, a school that first became known for giving troubled students access to an on-campus recording studio.
In the end, nothing worked to save the independently managed charter school — not the online curriculum, not the teacher-led classes. The Hawthorne school district, which oversaw the charter, became dissatisfied. In denying a petition to renew the charter, it cited fiscal instability, a questionable academic program and disappointing results, and the school will close Thursday after six years.
Its beleaguered staff is determined to go down teaching.
“We have a compelling model for the population we serve,” Principal Gary Daniels told his faculty at a May meeting/pep talk. “We’re going to stay the course and ride this out.”
The school survived many near-shutdowns. But a year ago, overspending, declining state revenues and inconsistent enrollment put it on the financial brink. Last summer, the school’s board accepted a rescue offer from Oklahoma-based Advanced Academics Inc., a subsidiary of the private, for-profit DeVry Inc., which also operates DeVry University.
The company balanced the books — and even supported the music studio. In exchange, the school had to use Advanced Academics’ well-established online curriculum. The school also expanded to accept online-only students. The corporation would keep any money left over after expenses.
Online schools are a growth industry: The operators can qualify for all or most of the state funding attached to student enrollment, yet these companies typically hire fewer teachers and lack the full brick-and-mortar costs of traditional schools. They can frequently provide students with a free loaner computer and still turn a profit.
And, academically, the theory goes, online study can work for students who’ve struggled in traditional, often overcrowded classrooms. Such students can catch up or move ahead at their own pace, with individual feedback from either the program itself or teachers available online.
Recording Arts (originally called Media Arts) became part of an online network of three charters enrolling students in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Imperial and Kern counties.
In Hawthorne, however, it wasn’t working. The curriculum proved too difficult for the many students with third- to fifth-grade reading and math skills. And the computers were not holding their interest and attention.
Of the about 80 students who attended classes at the warehouse-like campus, one-fourth had engaged in criminal behavior and had parole officers, staff members said. Several are teen mothers. Most had been kicked out of at least one previous school, or they had been failing classes. Or both.
Teachers first tried to supplement the computers with classroom work in October. Staff members say Advanced Academics pressured them to return to the online-only format, even encouraging teachers to communicate with students just footsteps away only via computer.
The president of Advanced Academics, Jeff Elliott, said his company would never thwart classroom teaching. He cited examples of the company’s flexibility in working with many schools and school districts elsewhere.
“I’ve definitely heard of our curriculum being used in conjunction with small-group instruction,” Elliott said.
Whatever the case, the first-semester result prompted Daniels and staff to return to classrooms: 382 students had enrolled in 1,500 online courses, but only 70 passing grades were recorded. Most of those grades belonged to just a handful of students.
A team of outside evaluators praised the small classes in awarding the school full accreditation in February.
“My grades have started to go up since they started teaching me,” said Michael Zepeda, a junior. “I wouldn’t do my work because all you do is sit in your chair all day and read paragraphs on the computer. And you have to memorize everything. The teachers try to make it interesting to help you remember stuff.”
But the teaching regimen began to fizzle when the Hawthorne school district denied the charter renewal in March. By May, Schlick’s econ class was down from 16 regular students to three.
For that matter, Schlick wasn’t even being paid. In exchange for yet another cash infusion to finish the school year, Advanced Academics in April required the school to lay off half the teaching staff and cut salaries 30%.
Elliott said there simply wasn’t enough enrollment to maintain the full staff and wages.
Advanced Academics says it will take a huge loss on its investment of more than $500,000.
Even the music studio turned into a costly albatross, inactive for much of the last two years.
“It’s very frustrating,” said 17-year-old senior Deonte Eddings, who said he benefited from both the music and the caring teachers. “I got to see this school go down the drain. It makes me want to give up, to be honest.”
But he won’t. He plans to attend college and study the music business as well as philosophy and psychology.
Teachers such as Bruce Luu pressed onward to the end with a remaining handful of students. With mixed success, he urged them to read and understand “The Great Gatsby.” Rapper Sean Combs, like Gatsby, represents new money resented by old money, he suggested in a recent morning session.
Would Combs — also known as Diddy and Puff Daddy — have the same social status as a Kennedy? Who respects him?
“The other new-money people,” said 10th grader Yazbek Orozco.
“Who wears the clothes designed by Puff Daddy?” Luu asked.
“We do,” Yazbek said.
When Luu applied the concept of social stratification to civil rights struggles, Yazbek had more trouble. She didn’t understand why black people who were mistreated in one place couldn’t just move somewhere else.
In a later interview, Luu said exploring the themes of “Gatsby” requires skills undeveloped in many of these students.
“The computer is a tool,” he said. “It’s not a teacher. I’m their teacher.”