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Students get a last chance -- rap

Hip Hop High counters a neighborhood culture of extreme violence and poverty with respect, attention and the chance to make music.

January 19, 2008|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Jennifer Murphy knows tough schools. She has been cursed at and threatened, has broken up fights and confiscated weapons. Still, she looks slightly queasy as she sits in her glass-walled principal's office, staring at a huge flat-screen monitor.

A videotape is playing. It shows a teenage girl standing outside the main office of Murphy's school. The girl glances around furtively, then hoists herself onto a counter and slides through a pass-through window, into the office.

Murphy freezes the image, then rewinds it. The girl goes through the motions in reverse, hopping down, backing away. Murphy does this repeatedly, forwarding, reversing, forwarding again, as if willing the sequence to change. It doesn't. The girl makes the same bad decision each time.

It is not yet 10 a.m., the beginning of the school day at Media Arts Academy, a charter school in Hawthorne that calls itself Hip Hop High and exemplifies, in some ways, the promise and the challenges of the charter school movement.

It is a place where failing students get a second chance. Media Arts showers them with attention, treats them with respect, offers plenty of independence and, along the way, gives them the opportunity to lay down their own hip-hop beats and raps.

Some days, it all works beautifully. Today is not going to be one of those days.

Murphy minimizes the video image, which was recorded earlier that morning. She stands, a tall, striking woman whose long red hair glides down the back of a black leather jacket. An ankle tattoo is visible.

Behind her is a cabinet, which has been rifled. Cash has been taken. The girl on the surveillance tape is the sole suspect.

"I'm going to have to talk to her," Murphy says.

I am really friendly

I wonder if I'll make it to my 40s.

I hear gunshots

I see myself lying on the floor

I want world peace

-- Maria Olmedo

12th grade

Media Arts was founded in 2004 and endured a couple of years of dreadful academic performance before turning a corner last year under Murphy's leadership. Its Academic Performance Index score shot in one year from 386 -- about as low as a school can go -- to 537.

That is still extremely low, more than 150 points below the state average and 15 points below nearby Leuzinger High School, a regular public school in Lawndale. Not a single student at Media Arts scored at the advanced level in any subject included in state standardized tests. In math, not one was even judged proficient.

On the plus side, few schools have achieved such strong growth in a single year.

This year, Media Arts formed an alliance with a Minnesota school, the High School for Recording Arts, founded in 1996 by rapper David "TC" Ellis, whose career was nurtured by the rock star Prince. The idea, he said, was to provide "experiential education" built around something that urban kids loved, hip-hop music. Now Media Arts is using some of Ellis' ideas to motivate students through music.

"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."

Anyone spending time at Media Arts has to ask two questions: Is this working any better? And if it is, can it compensate for years of poor schooling in elementary and middle grades or for a social environment in which violence is the norm and academic achievement a rarity?

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.

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