Denver-based Youth on Record is an innovative music education program with national relevance

Youth on Record was formed in 2007 by members of Denver hip hop and rock band Flobots as a platform for youth and youth-adult organizing. It has evolved significantly since those early days, and is now the number one music education provider for Denver Public Schools.

Youth on Record employs professional working musicians to teach for-credit classes at alternative academic high schools in Denver. It is the only model of its kind in the country.

Jami Duffy, Executive Director of Youth on Record, says that the program addresses two major issues: the American dropout crisis and artist employment opportunities.

“We are working in a neighborhood with a 12 percent graduation rate in a city with a 58 percent graduation rate,” Duffy says. Through this program, at-risk youth ages 16-22 receive course credit for music and performance education including music production, spoken word poetry, and music fundamentals. Every student gets five academic credits in their classes; the organization currently works with 700 students annually. “We’re really helping to put these kids on the academic pathway to graduation.”

Duffy came on as Executive Director in 2010. She had previously been a board member and has spent her adult life working at the intersection of youth advocacy, social work, and the arts. She says the YOR board members had a collective vision to build the organization. They had been offering after-school programs, which are effective for elementary and middle school students, but for high school students they really wanted to get inside the classroom. “[For this to work for high school students], they need to either be getting high school credit or a paycheck,” Duffy says.

“This was really a collective vision that we have worked tirelessly to achieve. Part of it was the absolute conviction that art must be used to address the most pressing issues of our time. What was happening to the young people in our city was unacceptable.”

They hold classes at their Youth Media Studio, a 6,000-square-foot state-of-the-art music education space. They just finishing building out their recording studio, partnering with internationally successful Denver-based band The Fray on getting equipment. There are also 25 music workstations, all learning-abled, and a poetry “kiva,” which Duffy describes as a “really warm space” where the Denver Slam Poetry team meets and practices. The Youth Media Studio was built in partnership with the Denver Housing Authority as part of the DHA’s massive $200 million Mariposa redevelopment spanning several blocks in West Denver and including both low-income and market rate apartment rental units.

“The Denver Housing Authority is considered the most visionary housing authority in the U.S.,” says Duffy. “The fact that they invested $2 million [into Youth on Record] really catapulted us ahead by 10 years.” Denver Public Schools has also been an instrumental partner in moving YOR forward, as have the artist-instructors. “All those artists combined with the housing authority combined with the school district – this has been a nonstop labor of love, but it’s working.”

In addition to teaching 60 kids every day five days a week at the media studio, instructors also go directly to high schools, as well as to youth residential treatment facilities to work with kids who have experienced trauma, have addiction issues or learning disabilities, and those who were just simply abandoned.

Duffy estimates about 1,000 students have gone through the academic program and earned credits, with about 5,000 total being reached through additional assemblies and workshops. 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.

Additionally, Youth on Record employs 15 musicians who get paid for their skills, allowing them to teach their craft and not have to piecemeal their lives together by bartending and doing other unrelated jobs here and there, as musicians are so often forced to do.

“Because they have that stability can go continue to make music, record, [go on tour]. Half of our musicians just got back from SXSW. By having such a stable job within the music industry to them means being able to continue working in their industry.”

As Youth on Record conducts research to create and implement a national model of their program, they are already receiving national attention. Youth on Record is the primary partner for Denver’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, launched by President Obama to create more opportunities for young men of color. A youth summit held at their facilities in February brought in over 100 young men of color to discuss the issues that they really care about – primarily having better relationships with their schools and with law enforcement. YOR was also honored last year at the Future of Music Coalition Honors Dinner, and is partnering with PBS to produce a documentary on the organization’s work in addressing this national education crisis head-on.

They’re also doing a variety of work with well-known national music acts like Sleater-Kinney, OK Go, Kimya Dawson, and the Fray. “These are artists who walk their talk in their communities,” says Duffy. “[Youth on Record is] really starting to be seen as a one-of-a-kind model.”

Duffy says they are currently in conversations with cities all over the country that are interested in launching a similar program, and hopes that, within 18 months, they will have their “phase two” rollout finalized. “This is a fascinating education model that’s working,” she says. “It’s not just a concept that’s good; it’s actually working, which is amazing.”