Highland Park teacher uses music to teach life lessons - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

Highland Park teacher uses music to teach life lessons to students

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HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. (WJBK) -

If you're lucky, you've had one teacher in your life who made you feel special; made you feel like you could do anything.  For some of the kids at Highland Park's North Pointe Academy, it's their music teacher, Joe Vercellino.

Vercellino, 25, joined a music department where most of the kids use trash cans for drums, the equipment is limited, and there aren't enough microphones to go around. Still, Vercellino says he's drawn to the challenge.  

"I felt like it was going to stretch me as a person and allow me to be really creative," he said.  And from his creativity, came Beasts of the Beat, a rap group formed of eight of his students.  He didn't know that what he created would change the lives of eight young men forever.

VIDEO: Click the video player to watch Maurielle Lue's story, as well as a Christmas performance from Beasts of the Beat as seen during 'The Nine.'

Even though these kids have skills, their rap group is not based on talent. They were selected for their personal strengths and weaknesses: one a strong leader, while another is learning to make better decisions. Vercellino got the idea from the movie, Money Ball.  He explained that in the movie, "Brad Pitt assembled this baseball team just based on their statistics. And if each person does what they're supposed to do, then they're going to win."  

The first album is setting iTunes on fire. Beasts of the Beat is breaking the mold and steering away from commercialized rap music.  Instead, they rap about positive messages with lyrics like, "My life is my story."

"The culture of hip-hop really isn't doing much for anybody. I don't think it's doing anything for my kids. You don't need to be talking about the girls and the cars and the shoes. But, if that's been poured into you for the last 15 years of your life, you can't just walk in into your music class and have your music teacher say we're not going to talk about that anymore," Vercellino explained.  

He started meeting with the boys before and after class. They talked about the issues they dealt with at home and school. One day, they started free styling and talking about bullying.

In Highland Park alone, there is a 24% unemployment rate, which is more than triple the national average, and 42% of the people who live there live below the poverty line. Rapper, Keon Snadon said, "Basically, all it is, is drugs and poverty. Every kid has his own decision. Black kids say, I ended up here because of the neighborhood I live in. It's your choice if you want to make it or you don't, whether you want to be another statistic, another drug dealer that they know about or you can be somebody successful. I choose to be somebody successful."

Vercellino is more than a teacher to these boys.  "I look at Mr. V. like a father because he comes through for everybody like he is our father," said Dwight Banks.
 
"The hardest thing for me is knowing that some of my kids are going home, and they don't get to experience the same thing I experienced growing up. Like, they don't have a dad that speaks to them and say, 'I do believe in you. I believe you have what it takes to be a man,'" Vercellino said.

"He's literally the best teacher ever. Most teachers teach and go home. He does stuff outside. He takes you to a camp if you want to go. And that's just him, loving and caring and doing him," said Snadon.


"It feels good because I -- all of us -- have good talent. It's like a brotherhood," another rapper said.  

Beasts of the Beat rocked the stage on November 5th at the Michigan Charter School Conference. Their biggest show yet, selling their album hoping to raise money for the school's music program. The performance is just the beginning for these young men, the script is still being written.

"My ultimate goal is every one of these kids will grow up to be strong, consistent men. Beast of the Beat is not about creating rap stars," said Vercellino.

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