Last week, the top, front-page headline of the Denver Post read “Rhythm Scholars: Rap helps kids boost their academics—from multiplication to Shakespeare.” The story described an afterschool “Rap to Roots” program at the Wyatt-Edison Charter School in Denver’s inner-city Five Points neighborhood. The Post reported that the program “debuted this month in Colorado after success in cities such as Cleveland and Chicago.”
In a nutshell, the program aims to boost kids’ academic achievement by using rap music to motivate students to stay in school and to teach them about literary conventions, technology, and African-American history. The article reported that the program “did significantly better in standardized testing, attention spans in the classroom, and some [students] improved their writing skills.”
The story got noticed both in and outside Denver. Colleen O’Connell, the Post reporter who wrote the article, said that a national TV news network contacted her, expressing interest in covering the story. The next day, ASCD Smart Brief picked up the story and blasted it out to 175,000 readers. And within hours of the article being posted on the Post Web site, more than 80 comments had been posted, ranging from favorable support to equating the use of rap in schools with the demise of Western civilization.
My first reaction to the story was mixed. On the one hand, I could appreciate what the program was trying to do: offer urban kids an opportunity to express themselves creatively, motivate them, and provide them with a positive way to spend after-school hours (“Rap to Roots” is part of the school’s “Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives” program).
On the other hand, the rap lyrics written by one of the program’s 13-year-old scholars didn’t seem to be on par with the expectations of Colorado’s new language arts standards, which require seventh graders to “write fully-developed literary … text” and to “edit writing for correct grammar, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, [and] sentence structure … .”
I worried that this nifty idea might be just another example of well-meaning people setting low expectations for urban kids. So I contacted Michael Schenkelberg, the program’s director, to get, as the late Paul Harvey used to say … the rest of the story.
First off, I learned that the program is more of an adaptation than an adoption of what Schenkelberg had been doing in Cleveland under the auspices of The Initiative for Cultural Arts in Education (ICARE), supported by the Young Audiences of Northeast Ohio, a nonprofit arts-in-education organization. ICARE is essentially an artist-in-residence program. It places artists in classrooms for weeks at a time, during which they collaborate with teachers to enhance classroom learning through arts education that can include dance, music, drama, and visual arts.
An evaluation study of the ICARE program found that the longer students were exposed to the program, the higher they scored on standardized reading, math, and science tests. In addition, 87 percent of teachers said that their students worked more creatively because of the ICARE program. While the study produced correlational, not causal data, the findings suggest the program may have some positive effect on student learning.
However, in contrast to ICARE, the Rap to Roots program is—at least in its initial iteration—strictly an afterschool program that is, for the moment at least, focused on one type of artistic expression. Instead of placing artists in residence in a single classroom, guest artists work with students from multiple grades (fourth through eighth). Those differences, Schenkelberg explained, make it difficult to involve classroom teachers in offering feedback on student work, which might help them take their writing to the next level.
Indeed, at this point, the student work produced through the program is really just a means to a larger end: providing kids with a creative outlet that sparks their interest to learn and stay in school. Someday Schenkelberg hopes to expand the program to look more like the ICARE program—perhaps by bringing in local artists, musicians, and writers to work side-by-side in classrooms with teachers whose students have often seen their arts programs cut or scaled back.
Bottom line: while the Post should be commended for its efforts to provide a “good news” story on education (and place it on the front page), its headline writers probably connected a few too many dots in proclaiming “Rap helps kids boost their academics.”
Nonetheless, “Rap to Roots” shows promise, especially if the program is able to successfully replicate the components that made ICARE successful in Cleveland. Moreover, Schenkelberg should get credit for recognizing that all students deserve an opportunity to explore and develop their creative sides.