Innovations High: Where music enters the learning mix

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Zach Billingsley, left, Cooper Conway and Imani Lanier perform during Kick Out for Innovations High.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Tim Parsons

The dozen students seated casually in couches amidst musical instruments, desks and amplifiers were startled to learn about the South’s Jim Crow laws that prevailed for almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War. The day’s lesson included an Elvis Presley concert in the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, where the 12,000 black and white concertgoers were separated by a rope.

The class at Innovations High School is digital music. And rather than a class, it is referred to as a workshop. The students are called scholars and the teachers advisors. The topic of the lesson was “Using the power of music to transcend race and challenge social norms.”

An alternative school, Innovations is filled with students of many persuasions, and the digital music scholars had difficultly comprehending how a law was passed in 1955 prohibited a man and a woman of mixed races marrying or living together. The penalty was up to five years in jail. A 1928 newsclip was shown of more than 50,000 Ku Klux Klan who marched up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. A man dressed as Uncle Sam walked alongside the robed KKK members who had their faces exposed.

The students were incredulous. “It’s terrifying,” one said.

Taught by Sarah Frances, Digital music is an elective that can be taken four times. Many of the students say that attend Innovations to take the class, which incorporates musical performance, arrangements, recording as well as ancillary subjects such as English, math and social studies.

“I’ve learned more history here than I have in any other class,” said Sierra Hecklin, who last year recorded a song, “Lost Boy,” on the school’s annual “Innovations” CD.

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A student and digital music and English teacher Sarah Frances greet each other with a hug outside Innovations High School on West 2nd Street in Reno.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

It was almost time for Kick Out, the student concert performed for the entire school each Friday afternoon. There’s a Kick In performance each Monday morning. At sound check down the hall, an electric guitar loudly started to play a Nirvana song: “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Five years earlier, the building on the edge of midtown that housed Washoe High School smelled bad. There were piles of junk in dingy, gray and smoky rooms. And the teachers were the same.

Principal Taylor Harper

“It was a miserable yuck,” said Principal Taylor Harper, who transferred in from another alternative school where she also worked as the principal. At Innovations high, she is called the lead learner.

“It was the dumping ground for Washoe County School District, so any kids who were not going to graduate on time, who potentially were going to need a fifth or sixth year of school, were sent to Washoe High School because otherwise (the schools) don’t make their graduate-rate quota. So they would enroll at Washoe High. If you were pregnant or different or if you were getting in trouble, you were sent to Washoe High.”

“It had been identified as the only Title 1 Priority School in the state, so it was the top most failing school in the state in the state of Nevada with an 8 percent graduation rate.” Innovations is no longer a dumping ground. Students choose to attend, and lot of them do so for the music program.

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Digital music students Howard Shelton and Emma Elliott rehearse during class.

More than half of the students are in some way involved in music and recording arts, including Loren Guillen, who three years ago was nearly certain she would drop out of school.

“I was at McQueen and I didn’t fit in with all those kids,” said Guillen, who as learned to play three instruments. “I basically hated school. I was ditching school and getting into fights. I like going here because I have a connection with all of these kids. We’re like a big family.”

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Student Jackson Frank

Comparing Innovations to a family is in no way hyperbolic. A visitor to a Kick Out show repeated heard the analogy as he was approached by curious students.

“It’s like family,” sophomore Oscar Montoya said. “I love this place.”

Jacob Rubin enrolled in August after hearing good things about Innovations. “There are positive vibes here,” he said. “People don’t judge each other. Everyone’s happy.

Senior JJ Wendt is enrolled because of the music program. “I’ve learned to keep time with a band,” he said. “I really like the old rock and roll bands, like Def Leppard, the Sex Pistols, Weezer and the Ramones. One day I dream to be in a band as either a drummer or guitarist.”

Freshman Imani Lanier entered school with a background in piano. She has already learned guitar and percussion. She said she became comfortable at the school on her first day.

“It’s not like you’re just a kid here,” she said. “People notice you.”

Harper explained why the teenagers were so outgoing.

“We call it the secret sauce and one of the ingredients secret sauce is appreciating authenticity and just being our true selves and being kind and loving to other human beings,” she said. “So when you come into our home that is our school campus it is the expectation, and it’s the way we roll, to welcome people with open arms.”

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In the Narnia room, Spencer Kilpatrick gives a guitar lesson to Zach Billingsley.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Title 1 Priority Schools receive state funding and Harper implemented Nevada’s first Big Picture Learning model, which in its mission statement contrasts conventional “small-minded thinking.”

“I was seeking something that worked for kids that probably involved love, probably involved choice and probably involved just a completely different way of educating,” Harper said.

The Big Picture Learning statement includes, “We exist in an era in which populations of peoples and students who have rarely, if ever, enjoyed equitable opportunities find themselves further marginalized and demeaned.”

In other words, conventional public schools are not for everybody. Washoe was the last educational stop for most of the students. The name was changed to Innovations and it became an alternative school of choice. District schools cannot simply ship them away anymore.

Initially, parents and staff opposed the changes, which including adding music and art to the curriculum. Just 3 of 21 of those teachers remain at the school. The enrollment is 140.

“The first year of changing and purging the staff that was extremely toxic and bitter,” she said. “We had a really rough group of adults that were responsible for teaching the kids.

“Every time I turned around there was a new battle with someone who didn’t believe in us, didn’t believe in our kids and thought we were a farce.”

The graduation rate, which had been at 8 percent, has increased to 19 to 30 to 61 percent, the greatest improvement in the state.

“We’re bringing kids in who want to be there who have varying levels of disengagement no matter what the socioeconomic background,” Harper said. “We’re proving that we can increase grad rates with kids who are considered disengaged or disenfranchised from their learning.”

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Imani Lanier’s latest instrument is electric guitar.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Resident musician Spencer Kilpatrick was at the head of the Sarah Frances’ digital music class before Jim Crow was discussed. He had the class listen to a song by Melbourne, Australia artist Tash Sulta.

“Listen to the tone and instrumentation,” Kilpatrick said. “What are your thoughts?”

“It’s dreamlike, with the guitar and echo,” a student said. “Reverb, right!” Kilpatrick said. “It gives it a feeling of playing in a lot of space. You put a bunch of reverb on it, and it’s ambient.”

Together, the students read a music critic’s review of the song.

“It uses a lot of big words,” someone observed. “It should be written more plainly.”

Kilpatrick agreed: Writing at its core is to communicate. If you don’t understand it, it’s a waste.”

Kilpatrick moved to the to study English at University of Nevada but has remained. He’s entrenched in the music community, performing and recording with his band Failure Machine, writing for the music magazine Tahoe Onstage and substitute teaching. He used to work at Jimmy John’s with Clint Philbin – the drummer in Failure Machine – and Andrew Protz, who now teaches full time at Innovations.

“Some of the students are still scared,” Protz said. “The goal is to get them out of their shell.”

Kilpatrick plays some Gil Scott Heron, the spoken-word pioneer from the 1970s, to break that shell. He has the students write for 10 minutes in a workshop.

“When I started when I’d look up at the class they were either drawing or on their phones,” Kilpatrick said. “Now they are writing.”

Working with students has resonated with Kilpatrick, too. Instead of occasionally substituting in between his own gigs, he’s become the resident musician. He will have students study a song and give them two weeks to rearrange it. Recently, the song was “Heard it Through the Grapevine.” He had them listen to the stripped down version by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

“They listen and then change it into something that is their own,” said Kilpatrick, who insists that the upcoming Innovations CD be all original, written by the students.

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Spencer Kilpatrick, left, and Recording Arts Coordinator Travis Hopper.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

While Harper compared the old Washoe High as the dreary after-life as a basement civil servants in the movie “Beetlejuice,” during her “purge” of the building she discovered a large closet she called “Narnia.”

“Teachers are notorious hoarders and I wasn’t going to let them fill that room (up),” she said. “I took a refrigerator and pushed it across room myself.  This room is for the kids. It’s like Narnia. It doesn’t exist. It only exists for the kids.”

Big Picture Learning advocates teaching the students what they want to learn and some of them had threated to drop out if there was no music program.

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Narnia is filled with instruments and adorned with art.

Harper wanted to use Narnia as a music room. Advisor Travis “Hop” Hopper, who is now the recording arts coordinator said, “Dude, that would be sick.”

Like the students at Innovations, Hopper didn’t click at his previous school, where he wore a suit and tie and assumed a straight-laced role as dean of students.

“I didn’t fit in as an administrator,” he said. “I hated it.”

Hopper accompanied Harper to a visit the Big Picture Learning Center in Providence, Rhode Island and “his soul shifted,” Harper said.

“He drank the Kool-Aid and he just he lost interest in administration. Once we were able to bring Big Picture into Innovations, Travis was like I’m leaving admin and I am going to come and be an advisor there. So he comes over and he’s like surfer boy. You see him now and you could never imagine him as an administrator. Now he is just a down-to-earth, creative soul.”

The students brought in a mishmash of instruments in various degrees of damage in to Narnia, where they received new strings and were put back together.

Hopper made a plan for a music department modeled after the High School for Recording Arts in St Paul, Minnesota, which is known as Hip-Hop High.

“There’s no way to argue that within music there isn’t math, social studies, science, English,” Principal Harper said. “It’s all in there, so we had to craft a good defendable reason why we could use the state money to spend on music equipment and building a studio.”

More than half of the student body uses the studio built, including the social studies department, which records public service announcements on topics such as bullying. It’s called the Reno Recording and Performance Arts Collective, or RRPAC.

“The principal gave us a shot to try it,” Hopper said. “We had no money. It was built on a dream. Where there’s a will there’s a way. We took core academic stuff and incorporated it to music in 2013. Once grant money started coming in, we had a thing going, but we’re still not there. I want Reno on the map and it starts with kids. They are so passionate. You just let these guys go.”

Instructors Patty Auger and Lucy Dugan dance in the hallway during Innovations High School’s Friday Kick Out concert.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

While Hopper worked on a recording session, Kilpatrick gave junior Zach Billingsley a private guitar lesson in Narnia. “It’s like being on the basketball team,” Hopper said. “You have to pass all of your core academics to be eligible for studio time or to get a lesson from Spencer.”

“Here they let you express yourself and take into account that you have talent,” Billingsley said.

As the graduation rates dramatically improve, Innovations faces more challenges. It no longer qualifies for as much state funding.

“Finding money to have someone like Spencer there is a priority for me because look at what he’s able to do. He is he is an expert in his field,” Harper said. “He is definitely a natural-born educator and so I fought for funding for Spencer.”

During a recent Friday Kick Out show, the school was treated by an appearance from an outside band, Kilpatrick’s Failure Machine. Three Innovations students sat in on a couple of tunes.

Afterward, Clint Philbin, the band’s drummer, said, ‘It would have been so cool if we had this when I was in high school. They seem totally engaged and it’s really cool to see.”

Innovation students aren’t just staying in school. They are doing assignments on weekends, preparing for a career. That evening, students ran the sound system for a community event and on Sunday some performed a concert for a new development ground-breaking celebration in Spanish Springs.

Loren Guillen, the student who said she was going to drop out, now plays three instruments and she hopes to someday work as a humanitarian, gardener or with the Peace Corps. She will graduate in March, a trimester early.

-Tim Parsons

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A Sam & Dave video is played in Sarah Frances’ digital music class.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

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Words of inspiration in Narnia.

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Freshman Imani Lanier and her bandmates go to the head of the class and rock the school.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

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Innovations teachers cross West 2nd Street after Kick Out closes the school week.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Earl Fegert

Innovations senior Earl Fegert reviews a Reno concert by the national touring band Palehound. LINK

About Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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