Meet Simon Gratz’s Justin King

When Mastery Charter took over Simon Gratz High School in 2011, the school was among the 100 most dangerous in the country. Only about 60 percent of students enrolled were coming to school on a daily basis. Of the remaining 40 percent, only half were attending classes.

This was the condition of Simon Gratz when Justin King joined the staff as the music teacher. King immediately knew the school itself school had more potential: Simon Gratz was built in 1925 with a fifth floor for arts and sciences. The floor boasts gorgeous original architecture and hugely spacious classrooms, but has been sealed off for years and used as storage.

Just a year after Mastery took control, attendance rates increased and violent incidents dramatically decreased. Simon Gratz was removed from the Persistently Dangerous School list. In this time, King also became the Assistant Director of Enrichment and is now in charge of overseeing all athletics, music, and art programs for all Mastery Charter Schools.

After receiving funding from the Fund for Non-Academics from Mastery Charter (along with other grant funding) Simon Gratz finally had the the minimum funds needed to open up the fifth floor for the first time in years.

The first space to be renovated was for one of King’s personal projects: a top-of-the-line recording studio for students. However, before the completion of this first round of renovations, money ran out. To the surprise of everyone involved, the union carpenters and electricians volunteered their time to finish the last stages of the project. The manpower donated was worth nearly $25,000.

Thanks to the volunteer workers, a class began using the recording studio this year. Taught by King, who started recording his own music in the 8th grade, students are learning the basics of sound engineering using industry standard technology.

The pilot class was comprised 24 students who showed high levels of interest and investment in the program: a mix of musicians, non-musicians, and, as King later found out once they started recording, students who show real potential rapping.

The class started in the live studio, where students learn to respect and properly care for the technology involved. King said he’d hand the groups of students microphones and amps, letting them figure out how to set it all up by themselves. King says, “I’m not interested in kids becoming passengers in the airplane; I want them to build the airplane.”

The driving force behind the entire project is King’s passion for equal educational opportunity. He mentioned again and again that the achievement gap is directly caused by a gap in resources and opportunities available to them.

While the opening of the recording studio is a step to closing the gap, the project still has a long way to go. The choral room, while already in use, needs at least $10,000 to be completed. King also hopes to begin renovations on the next space, a fully outfitted art studio with a greenhouse. 

King has seen first-hand the way working in the new recording studio is engaging students in a new way and that the arts have a real impact on the lives of kids, not just as students, but as people. Hopefully King’s project will be able to continue to expand and his work will be able to keep impacting students the lives of current and future students.

Interested in learning more about King’s work? You can reach him at Justin.King@masterycharter.org