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Performing Arts Featuring Hip-Hop Boost Academics

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A unique performing arts program featuring Hip-Hop boosts academics in one urban high school

“Fastlane” finished his verse and a small round of applause broke out in the hallways at Sherman Park’s Washington High School.

He smiled, acknowledged the congratulations, and shook hands with Dave Olsen and Jeremy Bryan.

The two make up The Figureheads, a Madison-based educational rap group, and leaders of Washington’s new Fire in the Soul Institute.

Bryan, a veteran rapper, complimented Fastlane — Washington junior Delane Nelson — on his quick delivery and extensive vocabulary. But he also reminded the student to apply his obvious intelligence in the classroom.

“Hanging out with the right people and making good choices, that’s what’s going to help me get out of here,” Nelson said.

Growing Arts Education

Bryan and Olsen, an experienced music producer and DJ, lead a hip-hop after school program each Thursday through Arts @ Large, a nonprofit aimed at growing arts education in Milwaukee Public Schools.

Performing Arts Featuring Hip-Hop Boost Academics

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“The goal in the lyric writing is to express what’s going in their lives,” Olsen said. “Most hip-hop they hear is a fantasy, like watching a movie. We want to get them thinking who they are and who they want to become.”

At Washington, they make use of a newly constructed media lab with more than 30 iMac computers and a green screen for video production. The lab, which is in its first year, was funded through an MPS grant, Principal Tonya Adair said.

The Figureheads seek to have each student tap his or her creative process and apply that academically — from creating instrumental beats to recording lyrics and a music video.

In 2001, Kim Abler and Teri Sullivan founded Arts @ Large to do exactly that — improve student confidence and expression. Previously, they worked with The Figureheads to provide student residencies in music creation.

“We are about working with partners and teachers to break down the walls between content areas and arts,” Sullivan said. “At all our schools, our intention is to work collaboratively on the big idea of growth.”

Both Abler and Sullivan praised MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton on his recommitment to urban arts education. This year, for the first time in many years, MPS increased offerings in art, music and physical education. Sullivan, a former MPS teacher, said an arts education can “level the playing field.”

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