Youth On Record Hitting High Educational Notes

The students who enroll in Denver's Youth On Record music classes might not ever actually be on a record, but chances are good they'll graduate from high school and ultimately make a positive impact in their own community.
The way Jami Duffy sees it, art for art's sake isn't good enough anymore. On a certain level the arts should be a conduit for addressing and discussing the most pressing issues of our time. The arts should be a resource for the underserved.

"I would like to see the artistic community throughout the entire city move to that realm and really be put on the map for that," she says. "For it to be known that Denver's arts and culture scene exists to move their community forward."

As executive director of Youth On Record, Duffy is certainly doing her part by spearheading an organization that is deeply rooted in music and exists for the sole purpose of moving a community forward. That particular community is made up of students who, for various reasons -- chronic homelessness, family gang activity, immigration issues -- have found themselves lost in the jungle of high school with seemingly no realistic path out. 

According to Denver Public Schools, the district's 2012-13 on-time graduation rate was about 61 percent, "which is sometimes shocking for people to hear," says Duffy. "Denver is this really incredible, blossoming city that is obviously attracting people from all over the country. But there's this undercurrent of what could be seen as an education crisis."

"We decided at Youth On Record that we wanted to help," Duffy continues. "We are absolutely in partnership and on the side of the school district and the teachers and the administrators. They are working really hard to address this issue."

What Youth On Record is working really hard at, going back to Duffy's belief about the current state of art, is addressing the issue through music. "Right now we are the number one music provider for Denver Public Schools," she says.

For creditMolina and guest artist Pablo Kee (left) perform at the start of a class at Venture Prep.

And make no mistake, these aren't after-school, hang-out-with-your-buddies, clown-around instrumental sessions. Youth On Record teaches for-credit classes in a number of the district's schools. They are elective credits, but they are credits that ultimately lead to graduation. And perhaps most importantly, they motivate students to get to school -- and stay there.

"Youth On Record periods serve as an incentive to be in school for other classes," Duffy explains. "As much as possible, we try to teach the first class of the day so kids get up and come to school, the first period after lunch so kids come back after break and the last class of the day so they stay for the duration. We are working hand in hand with the schools to be sure that we are a helpful resource to get kids excited about their entire education, not just music."

Typically, two professional musicians lead each session of approximately 20 to 25 students. At last count, there was an assortment of 36 different classes that range from fundamentals to production to lyric writing, and starting next year an audio engineering track.

And no matter the subject matter, the model is working. Through 2013, 85 percent of Youth On Record students boosted their attendance in all classes, and 71 percent improved their grade point average.

Adrian H. Molina, known artistically as Molina Speaks, is a poet and hip-hop artist, and one of Youth On Record's lead educators. He also developed what could be the organization's most interesting course of study: a rap-focused curriculum built on the fundamentals of chess and civics.

"It started out as an experiment," Molina says, "but once I started to use chess, it became evident that it was a perfect application of metaphor and other poetic devices. The students are exploring power dynamics on the chessboard so they're learning how to think critically. Then we start to ask questions like who is the pawn, what is the function of the pawn, who is the queen, how does the experience of the queen compare and contrast with the experience of women?"

"Some of the students are looking at the pawns as working class or soldiers or even other independent artists. They all have their own interpretations and they use that to write poetry and rap lyrics. Without even knowing it, they're using metaphor, personification and simile, and then we work backward and show them that they already know how to apply these poetic devices and that now it's time write about their own lives in society and school."

"They really buy in to all of it," Molina continues. "And it gives them confidence to learn chess, this game that business people and politicians play, and that no matter who they are or where they're from they can learn the game, too -- and understand this dialogue about society and power and how things work."

The fact that students are learning to think critically and consider various societal issues all within the domain of a music class is ideal.

"We're not in the business of creating the next generation of musicians," Duffy says. "Sure, we'll have some who are so talented that they break out, but we're actually in the business of empowering students to be the best sort of community members they can be. There's this big push for STEM curriculum [science, technology, engineering, math], but there's also a push for STEAM, to add the arts so we have creative problem solvers at the table trying to figure out what the future's going to look like."

Classes range from fundamentals to production to lyric writing, and starting next year an audio engineering track.Get on board

Creative problem solving, specifically the kind that relates to fundraising, has become one of Duffy's specialties. Youth On Record depends on monetary donations, and while they have received funding from some rather big names -- The Denver Foundation, Mile High United WayAnschutz Family Foundation, Denver Housing Authority and others -- Duffy remains actively in pursuit of younger, less established donors.

"If you're 25 years old and know you can give $10 a month to Youth On Record, because of where we are in our growth stage, that actually makes a difference for us," she says. "That generational group hasn't really picked their cause yet, and we really feel like Youth On Record can be the place because we can leverage a donation of any kind."

Thanks to their connections and position within the music world, they can also do some fantastic incentive-based fundraising events. For example, in conjunction with the upcoming Colorado Gives Day on December 9, Youth On Record and Illegal Pete's have arranged for an intimate concert by Shakey Graves, who has sold out three consecutive upcoming nights at the Bluebird Theater (not to mention the following evening down in Colorado Springs).

"On December 13, however, he's going to do this small show and meet-and-greet," Duffy says. "It's free and the first 200 people who get there get in. But the only way you'll know the location is to donate to Youth On Record on Colorado Gives Day. It's pretty cool. You donate to Youth On Record, and then on the 13th, you get a text message that tells you where to go see Shakey Graves."

Of course, it's also just cool to help out this organization that's using art to move our city forward.

This story was produced in partnership with The Denver Foundation as part of a series on giving and philanthropy. Read more stories from this series here.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
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Read more articles by JB Bissell.

Based in Denver, JB writes about local happenings and far-flung places often getting sidetracked at various points between. He can be reached here.
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