Illustration by Jess Hirsch

THERE'S AN EFFORT underway to bring a charter high school to Portland that caters not to the affluent, but to those often left behind in the education system—minorities, those in poverty, and dropouts. To draw them in, organizers have found a hook: hiphop. If it sounds like a narrow scope, that doesn't bother the future school's proponents.

"We're not shying away from it," says Erica Jayasuriya, the educator who is pushing for the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) Portland. "We decided that we'd use hiphop as a lens to look at some of the thematic threads."

Like the students Jayasuriya hopes to attract, she says Portland's hiphop scene has been largely overlooked by local media, including the Mercury. That underground scene makes Portland a fertile ground for the charter school.

"We have the most amazing positive hiphop music scene on the planet," Jayasuriya says. "I look at Portland, and say, 'This is the school that represents that creative energy and its trailblazing spirit.'"

HSRA Portland has made its pitch to the Portland Public Schools to start a charter school, and the board will vote on the idea next month. While envisioning the Portland school, Jayasuriya modeled her plans on those of the HSRA in St. Paul, Minnesota, where a very similar charter high school has been thriving for 12 years.

The school's approach to learning would start with a single question that students would take a semester to answer: How is sound transmitted? That single question can cover several areas of study, Jayasuriya says. They'd start with the iPod, learn how that technology works, and work their way back. In doing so, they'd learn the history of recording technology, the science of sound waves moving through matter, and the health aspects of listening to music, like stress management.

Although the students have to meet state standards for graduation, the classes won't look the same as those you'd find at a traditional high school. At the Minnesota school, for example, students are required to read for set amounts of time and show progress in the complexity of their reading—rather than reading a set list of popular titles.

"For us, it's not 'Are they reading Huck Finn?' It's 'Are they reading proficiently in order to relate to the modern world?'" says Tony Simmons, the development director at HSRA Minnesota. Along with the nontraditional teaching approach, Simmons says there's a nontraditional graduation requirement: Students must be accepted to some sort of post-high school education, like a university, community college, or vocational school.

But for all the good the Minnesota school can do, it can be an uphill battle, says Superintendent Wayne Jennings. Many of the students who come to their school are in poverty, don't have a stable home life, or for whatever reason have not made school a priority. The school typically fares poorly in the federally mandated No Child Left Behind testing, with students often struggling in math.

"Sometimes we wonder, 'Did these kids go to school at all before they came here?'" Jennings says. "We have to do a rebuilding process."

But the effort in Portland will be worth it, says Jayasuriya. The kids who need the most help will get hands-on experience with the tools they need to succeed in a field that makes them happy: hiphop.

"People are responding as if this is outrageous," she says. "But this is 21st century technology."