School shows how to solve some of education’s biggest challenges

The following column originally appeared during June, 2022 in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers, including the Morrison County Record


School shows how to solve some of education’s biggest challenges


Minnesotan David Ellis has gone from troubled teen to internationally acclaimed educator. It’s a remarkable story, told well in a new book, “Hip Hop Genius 2.0” (Rowman and Littlefield).


David TC Ellis

Accompanying David’s story are answers to important questions:

– How can schools work effectively with angry, alienated, sometimes violent youth?

– How can schools help these youngsters develop academic skills along with the skills and attitudes needed to help solve real problems?

Ellis used his creativity, entrepreneurship, experience and passion to create a public (charter) school at which students use their love of music to create YouTube videos and public service videos. Their products are so strong that Verizon Wireless, State Farm Insurance, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education and others (including the Center for School Change where I work), have hired the students to create these videos.

They do this despite the fact that about 40% of HSRA students experience homelessness during the school year. Traditional schools didn’t work for them.

One of the book’s powerful stories is about how during the pandemic, HSRA student Walter Cortina helped start and lead a statewide effort that brought millions of dollars to Minnesota high school students. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and the Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed with research Cortina and others had done. Despite Department of Employment and Economic Development claims, eligible Minnesota high school students who were laid off because of the pandemic ultimately received $30 million in federal pandemic relief funds.

National Book Award winner and educator Herbert Kohl describes this book, telling Ellis’ story, as “a weapon for the resilience, brilliance and strengths of young people and for schools designed to serve them.” Picking up on this, the book’s authors explain that at HSRA, “Students are not seen as problems to be solved or empty vessels waiting to be filled. They are valued as thinkers, artists and entrepreneurs – survivors and thrivers.”

Cover of the book

Note – the book does contains some explicit language.

Recognizing the students’ and school’s prowess, the national organization, Junior Achievement, named this school as having the nation’s best student-run business. Ellis has been asked to speak throughout the United States and other countries. As this column is being written in late June, Ellis is speaking at a conference in London.

All this has come from a young man who had trouble in traditional high schools. Like some of today’s youth, he didn’t fit. The book’s authors noted that Ellis is a great school leader “not despite the academic struggles he went through, but because of them.”

Fortunately he landed at an innovative K-12 district school where his potential was recognized. (Full dis-closure: I was one his teachers at the school 45 years ago. Ellis participated in a class I taught where students solved actual consumer problems that adults referred to us. The book notes that this class and school helped him understand how he could use his insights and “street smarts” to help solve problems).

Ellis graduated from high school, earned a pilot’s license and worked with his friend, the noted musician Prince. Together they produced a platinum-award winning record. Later he opened his own recording arts studio, and ultimately founded the High School for Recording Arts.

The book is co-authored by three educators. Two are connected to universities: Sam Seidel is an adjunct professor at Stanford University, Michael Lipset is a McGill University lecturer. The third, Tony Simmons, is an attorney who met Ellis when they worked together in the recording industry. Ellis asked him to be the school’s executive director. Together, they’re a remarkable team.

Tony Simmons

HSRA’s distinctive features include beginning each school year with an individual student/educator goal-setting conference. What matters to each student is part of what that person studies during the year. To graduate, students must demonstrate skills and knowledge in several areas. It’s not enough to attend class and receive a passing grade.

The book shows that part of what will help frustrated, angry, depressed young people is taking their interests and concerns seriously. Helping them explore these issues is vital. Another key to help these students, as Simmons puts it, is to not just talk about, but actually “enact positive and meaningful change.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, or @JoeNathan9249. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.