Photo from Dynamo Studios / Matt Reiter of the Volume Collective Outlook Media Production Program speaks to students as part of a program done in partnership with Dynamo Studios, Rise Chattanooga and the Levitt Amp Series.

For Howard Connect Academy Principal Mardee Miller, school is a place where students are allowed to learn, imagine and dream about not only the world they currently live in, but the one that could be.

So, for her, the perfect types of programs include two now being offered. The XFactor Studio, which was implemented last year, teaches kids about music, video and still-photography production. The new XProduction Studio, which students will encounter when they return to classes, will get more into graphic arts and web design.

"This is an awesome opportunity that just continues to open doors for compassion and opportunity," she said. "It's a place of innovation and designed to give our kids as many authentic learning experiences as possible."

The program is done in collaboration with Dynamo Studios and its executive director, Kessler Cuffman, who is working with staff at Howard Connect and The Howard School to implement the innovative, hands-on learning. The main studio space at Howard Connect is outfitted with industry-standard audio, photo and video equipment, including 15 iMacs "loaded with every bell and whistle and lots of software."

Plus, he said, students have use of a green screen, lighting and quality microphones.

"We also have several Fender guitars and custom-made amps from Tyler Amplification, and we are partnering with the Songbirds Foundation on some things."

Funding has come in part from a $100,000 grant from the Bobby Stone Foundation, he said. County Commissioner Tim Boyd also provided $5,000 from his discretionary fund.

Mike Pollock, executive director and trustee of the Bobby Stone Foundation, said the program at the Howard schools ticks a lot of the boxes that the foundation wants to support.

"We are working on projects that address issues of poverty, but also overall quality of life and, to some degree, the quality of education and the arts."

He said Stone, who died two years ago, was also very passionate about the community and film, and used those passions to great effect through his work at Atomic Films, which he co-founded with Dave Lang.

"We feel like Bobby wanted us to make a real difference on the ground and to be somewhat playful and experimental about it," Pollock said.

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Photo from Dynamo Studios / Kessler Cuffman with Dynamo Studios works with a high school student at The Howard School.

Cuffman is in the midst of raising another $155,000 to build a standalone studio somewhere in the downtown area.

The idea is to give students hands-on learning by having them work on actual projects, such as marketing videos that promote the school or recording sessions with musicians. Cuffman uses his increasing connections with local and touring musicians who come into the studio for a couple of hours or a couple of days to record a song.

"They get a recording, and the students learn," Cuffman said.

The program is designed to grow with the students as they matriculate through middle and high school, according to Miller. And it is designed to impress upon the kids that there are all kinds of jobs within the worlds of audio, video and design, beyond being the actor in front of the camera or the singer on the record, just as there are more jobs on a team than quarterback.

"Somebody has to design the turf on the football and the uniforms. There is the turf management, and somebody has to design the programs and the commercials."

Sixth-graders at Howard Connect take what are called 30-Day Challenges as part of the XFactor Studio. The challenges expose them to several aspects of the recording environment, such as microphone placement, software, sound levels and mixing.

In the seventh grade, they pick two of the six areas of study they are most interested in. Then in the eighth grade, these become either a major or minor study, which they focus on even more when they enter high school at Howard. They also get credit toward graduation with the classes

"They could walk out of Howard with a pretty good portfolio," Miller said.

Cuffman said the students are learning skills that are applicable in many industries. He said he has been asked to create a similar program at other local private and public schools, "but we are being very intentional about working with students in inner-city communities. We really care about working there, but as it grows, we would love to work with every student.

"Howard is a special place, and both have wonderful administrators who want to change the world for the students."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-6354.

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Middle-school students at Howard Connect Academy explain their innovative program to visitors during the grand opening of the XFactor Studio last August. / Photo from Dynamo Studios