New Design High School social studies teacher Tad Donozo, right, helps coach 11th grade U.S. history students for next week's Regents exam.
New Design High School social studies teacher Tad Donozo, right, helps coach 11th grade U.S. history students for next week

It was exactly a week before juniors at New Design High School would sit for their American History Regents exam, but you might not know it from the hip-hop beats emanating from a stereo at the front of the class.

But you’d know by listening to the song’s lyrics, which discussed essay-writing strategy.

And after the song ended, one student kept going. ”Don’t just describe — analyze,” he rapped. “Write what you mean, discuss the theme.”

The class was in the midst of reviewing the U.S. History Regents curriculum using a pilot program called Fresh Prep, which wrote its own hip-hop songs to help students remember facts, concepts and test-taking strategies.

The program’s creators are trying to prove that music and arts can help boost student test scores in core subjects like history and English. They’ve already seen some success: When they ran the program on a smaller scale last year, the vast majority of students passed their exams.

Listen to one of Fresh Prep’s U.S. History Regents songs, “Turn of the Century.” You can listen to all of the program’s songs on its website.

Organizers won’t begin to know until they have this year’s Regents pass rates at New Design, the site of Fresh Prep’s first school-wide pilot. I visited the school the week before students sat for the exam, and we’ll check back when the results are in.

A musical experiment

New Design is a small school co-founded in 2003 by the city and Urban Arts Partnership, a non-profit that runs arts programs in needy schools. The school currently has a 70 percent  four-year graduation rate, which school leaders are hoping to boost.

High school students need to pass five Regents exams with a grade of 65 or higher in order to graduate with a regular diploma. The exams are one of the biggest obstacles to graduation for many New Design students, said Philip Courtney, the head of Urban Arts. Last school year, 66 percent of the school’s students passed the English Regents and around half passed the math and American history exams. Just 39 percent passed the Global History test, commonly regarded as the most difficult.

Last July, New Design and Urban Arts launched Fresh Prep as a remedial program for 30 students preparing to take the Global History Regents exam. All of the students had failed the exam between one and five times before; the average number of times the students had failed the test was three. They spent 12 six-hour days working through through Fresh Prep’s songs and activities.

The day after the program ended, the students sat for the exam. Nearly 80 percent of the students passed, and all of the special education students in the group did.

Another small pilot followed last fall for the English curriculum. This time, hoping to prove a correlation between Fresh Prep and high pass rates, organizers compared the scores of students who prepared with the hip-hop program to a similar group who didn’t. Around 94 percent of the students who had gone through the program passed the exam, compared to half the students who hadn’t used the curriculum to prepare.

The program now has songs and class activities written for the Global History, U.S. History and English exams, and for the first time, all New Design students in those classes went through the program for two weeks before the exams were given. If the students do well, Urban Arts hopes to expand the program to other schools. Organizers also hope to expand the curriculum from its current form as a two-week cram session to something that can be used throughout the year.

Fresh Prep is taking an unusual, data-driven approach to arts in education. Urban Arts is the first arts group to be funded by the Robin Hood foundation, in part because the group was beginning to prove its effectiveness with test scores, Courtney said.

But Scott Conti, New Design’s principal, said that the program helps students with more than just memorizing facts for a one-day test.

“What we’re really packaging to the kids is how to do study skills,” Conti said, explaining that the idea is to help integrate studying into the interests and activities students already have. “You can say ‘study study study,’ but if you package it to them in a way they’ll go for, it’s much better.”

“Music makes you want to”

In addition to the original songs, the prep course also includes activities designed to incorporate the energetic, competitive nature of hip-hop culture, said Tracee Worley, a former teacher at New Design and now a curriculum specialist at Urban Arts. Many of the class activities are game-based, and workbooks reference rapper and actor Will Smith’s 90s-era television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and feature its characters, whom students seemed to recognize even though the show went off the air when they were toddlers.

Students in an American history class at New Design divided into teams for a review contest a week before the test. A student stood with flashcards, describing the terms and concepts they contained without naming them. The rest of the class racked up points for being the first to correctly identify the term.

“People who think that government shouldn’t get involved in business…”
—”Laissez faire!”
“This has to do with Turkey and Greece.”
—”The Truman Doctrine!”

Kashawn Henry, 16, was part of the original group that went through Fresh Prep to pass the Global History Regents exam last summer, and used the program to prepare for the American history exam this year.

“Some of the things catch my ear,” he said. “The fact that it’s music makes you want to listen to it.”

“I’m seeing students really getting into it, studying in the hallway, memorizing the songs,” Worley said. “I think it creates a lighter atmosphere for something that’s incredibly heavy and prone to inducing anxiety.”