"HAVING taught for 28 years, sometimes the arts are the only thing that can save kids," says Bill Quinn, a developmental music teacher in the Louis Riel School Division.
He would know. He's seen the difference the arts can make for at-risk youth through a program he's been co-ordinating at the René Deleurme Centre, a student-services facility in St. Vital, for the past six years. Jointly funded by the Manitoba Arts Council's ArtsSmarts program and the Louis Riel School Division, Living in the City teams up three local artists with kids from the Centre's Transition for Success program -- an off-site program for at-risk high school students who require extra support to maintain placement at their schools.
Since September, this year's group has worked with a trio of hometown hip-hop heroes -- rapper Pip Skid, beatsmith Elliott Walsh (a.k.a. Nestor Wynrush) and DJ Kinetic -- to compose original rap music. Through a series of workshops dedicated to everything from writing to beat-making and recording, the kids took their ideas from their notebooks to the studio.
They recorded their rhymes in a permanent studio in the school's computer lab, outfitted by noted children's performer Jake Chenier. In the new year, painter/visual artist Cam Forbes will work with the kids on visual art projects, and Freeze Frame will lead them through a music video component.
Quinn says the program has been a success in not only encouraging self-esteem in kids who "don't get a chance to shine too often in their school lives," but also in keeping them in school.
"The program catches kids and keeps them coming here," Quinn says. "They don't come here because of the ArtsSmarts program, but once they're here, it can become something else to help them complete their education."
It has certainly caught the attention of kids like Tyson LaFrance. This is the 18-year-old's second time participating in the program. He can't say enough about it.
It's just before lunch hour at the René Deleurme Centre, and Tyson is in one of the science labs chatting about his experience with his teacher Bill Pollett, who runs the program. Tyson is a bright, articulate and polite kid with a winning smile. He fields interview questions with the confidence and cadence of an up-and-coming artist ready for his close up. A future Drake, perhaps?
Tyson listens to contemporary hip hop, but he also loves Beethoven. "Symphonies inspire me. Their greatness, you know?" Lyrically, he's inspired by the "day-to-day stuff. Anything, pretty much. Poetry. Just trying to dig deeper, get spiritual and get into a realm and just channel that."
He speaks easily and enthusiastically about the supportive, judgment-free space he and his peers have created; how they'd use lunch hour and free periods to brainstorm ideas for rhymes. No idea was a bad idea. Everyone was encouraged.
"The amount of teamwork, and how much people got into it -- it was pretty good seeing that," he says. "People were really getting into it and sharing what they thought was good. It was a bonding experience for everyone. We got very in tune with ourselves. We build off each other. It's a beautiful thing, actually. We're always pushing each other to our limits and elevating each other to the highest."
For teachers Quinn and Pollett, seeing kids get so passionate about a project is a reward all its own.
"It's fantastic. We're so lucky to have such a creative group of students in this school. For the kids, it's really a transformative experience. It's one of those things where they get to learn different ways to explore their own lives and experiences and do it in a creative way. Find talents, maybe, they didn't know they had," Pollett says.
A musical genre as socially, culturally and artistically rich as rap offers myriad study opportunities.
"There's all sorts of implications for social studies, for ELA (English Language Arts), built into a project like this," Pollett says.
"It's the coolest thing in the world as an ELA teacher. You're trying to teach kids about poetry and rhythm to kids who just have no interest in sitting there trying to write rhyming couplets or talking about how to write a sonnet -- and you see Pat or Elliott up at the front of the room and he's got a couplet up on the board and he's talking about how the rhythm and rhyme works, and you see all these heads nodding. And then they're getting their pencils going and writing their own stuff.
"It's just one of those moments where I just want to step back out of the room and say, 'Wow.'"
Of course, many students in the program are thinking about life after high school. Seeing real-live examples of people who have been able to carve out viable careers in the arts has been inspiring for kids like Tyson, who hope to do the same. A host of local notables, including graffiti artist Pat Lazo, StrongFront A/V Productions president Jesse Green and others, have participated in the program over the years.
Pip Skid, a.k.a. Patrick Skene, has been the program's anchor. He works tirelessly with at-risk kids through a variety of youth programming at various spaces around the city. He knows what a vital emotional outlet music can be, especially for kids who may not always get the emotional support they need. Empowering them with music is important to him.
"I'm almost 39. I'm older than a lot of these kids' parents. It's important for young people to have older people in their lives they can relate to," Skene says.
"It gives them motivation where they might not have had much." he adds. "We try to present the idea that being an artist professionally can be a realistic dream. I think when adults hear, 'I want to be an actor,' or 'I want to be a rock star,' it's met with, 'Cool, but here are the things you need to do first.'"
Although working with youths has its challenges, being able to be a mentor for the kids makes it worthwhile. "We get as much out of it as the kids do," Skene says.
And the kids certainly get a lot out of it. For Tyson, it's self-confidence. He says he's learned a lot about himself through the program (he works great under pressure and well with others). He's embraced being a team leader and the responsibilities that come with that.
"School is like the glory days, the wonder years for me. People in my class look up to me. I gotta show them. I gotta put them on the right track and be a leader for them. I can't let them down," he says.
Quinn sees such value in the program he would love to see an alternative music class like this one become a course credit at high schools across the province.
So does Tyson. "We're just trying to make school a place you go to that you really enjoy and feel like you've accomplished something at the end of the day," he says.
His teacher, Mr. Pollett, smiles. "The way it should be, huh?"