Prince, Passion, Persistence, and Open School

Prince, Passion, Persistence, and Open School 


David TC Ellis

I was pretty rebellious growing up. I would challenge systems.  I used to be confrontational.  I got kicked out of Highland Park and Central High Schools in St. Paul.

When I transferred to St. Paul Open School, I was not really engaged but my family said I had to get out of the house.  I would go into the loft at Open School in the “People to People” area. and sleep.  I wouldn’t get going until 10 or 11 o’clock.  Later I opened a school and discovered that teens did better if the school starts later.  That was true for me.

Joe Nathan, an Open School teacher, came up to me one day when I was sleeping and asked, “Don’t you want to learn how to protect your rights your money?”  That intrigued me so I went to the Protect Your Rights and Money.  The class ran the Consumer Action Service class.  That tapped into my interest and passion for advocacy.  I wanted to be something like a lawyer.   I liked the idea of helping consumers. It also was my learning style – “hands on, experiential learning. “ It motivated me.

One day Open School teacher Patti Brennecke talked to me when I was being confrontational.  Patty said “David, we don’t lock the doors. If you want to leave for the day, you can. “ The school’s philosophy and way of dealing with students flicked the switch for me.

Open School brought me to the understanding of what I could, as well as what I couldn’t do well.  I wasn’t a good speller or reader.

The learning environment at Open focused on what I could do well – I was a good talker.  I liked to talk.  I remember going on a field trip – I remember talking with several hundred people on a trip to Indiana.  I liked the fact that people trusted that I would do a good job. Open Schools education process was counter-intuitive – and very organic.


Open School also taught me about collaboration.  I learned how to work with people in Protect Your Rights and Money as a team.  Some people were good writers.    I wanted to peal the layers back when we approached problems.  That class also taught me to be persistent – to keep going.

Many years later, when I was dealing with the legislature, lessons from Open School helped me figure out what was right what was wrong.  I learned to present counter arguments.

After graduating from Open School, I went to flight school and earned a private pilot’s license.  Then I went to earn a Commercial Instrument License.

Then I got involved with the music business.  Hip hop music really grabbed.  My sister was a friend of Prince. I had known him since we were young.

I collaborated with one of his guitar players – Prince was working on the Batman movie.  Prince invited me to work with him.  I wrote a rap about the Batman movie. I was in the movie Graffiti Bridge” with Prince.

Later I produced “New Power Generation” with Prince – I did the rap in the song “Ne Power Generation.” That record went Double Platinum: It sold over 2 million.

Then I started a recording studio in downtown recording studio. Teens congregating downtown at my studio.  One day a client did not show so I sat and talked to the teens.  I brought them in the studio.  They were great.  They wanted to know everything I knew about the music business. I asked them why they weren’t in school.  They hated (traditional) school.  I thought   they are just liked me!

About that time, I saw an article about Wayne Jennings, the Open School principal, who had started a charter school.  He came over, saw the studio and the kids.  Wayne said “let’s sign then up for the school.”

More and more students came.  Based on my experiences at the studio, I set up a school in 1998. We called it High School for Recording Arts.  I say the school found me.  One of the things we do at HSRA is help students learn to read, write and learn to be organized as they create you-tube videos.  Some organizations like Verizon Wireless and State Farm Insurance have hired HSRA student to create public service announcements on You-Tube for them.

When you get kids in the studio, they often learn effortlessly.  Schools need to use the skills, knowledge, interests of the students.

You can find more information about the history of HSRA here.   In 2011, some HSRA students received an award as the Best Small Business in a school anywhere in North America, from the national group Junior Achievement., Students called their business LYME: – Leave Your Mark Everywhere

Sometimes the school run into hassles.  For example, we had a math professor, who is teaching teachers how to teach.   He was teaching math at HSRA but the state said he could not be the official math teacher. because he did not have a teaching license.    The state said I had to a licensed teacher supervising him.  Since this professor was teaching others how to be math teaches, the state’s attitude did not make sense to me.

HSRA students have spoken at Harvard, Stanford and New York University, A former Harvard grad student has started a school similar to HSRA in Los Angeles.

Open School started out as an innovation.  It was about trying new things.  Open School taught me to do that.  It taught me to use my passion to help others.