Mekhi C. grew up playing drums in his school band in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He says he enjoys listening to Lil Durk, Lil Baby, and Polo G, but never considered himself a musician until recently. 

“I’m really actually a creative person,” he says. “As a kid, I never really liked arts—I hated that class. So to be deep into music now is kind of crazy.”

Mekhi is a student at a program operated by the Department of Youth Services, the Massachusetts juvenile justice agency, and recently completed his second Berklee Online course. He knew about Berklee College of Music through his cousin, who studied bass at the Boston campus, and Mekhi jumped at the opportunity to take online music courses with other DYS students in the state. One of the outcomes of the course was learning how to use songwriting to process some of his hardships. 

Mekhi C. from Dorchester, Massachusetts, is a student at a program operated by the Department of Youth Services, and recently completed his second Berklee Online course.

“Music helped me cope through a lot of struggles I went through in my community, like losing friends, stuff like that,” he says. “I made a song about my friend that passed away and it was deeper than I would think. It showed me not only just the aspects of myself, but it showed me how influential music is in my life.” 

Through an initiative that has been years in the making, Berklee Online is offering music scholarships to students like Mekhi, allowing them to earn college credit by taking online music courses that are taught remotely by Berklee professors. The majority of the partnerships are in Massachusetts through DYS, with additional partnerships in California, Texas, and Missouri. Michael Moyes, Chief Operating Officer and Associate Vice President of Enrollment Strategy at Berklee Online, is leading the endeavor. 

“Berklee Online has a responsibility to make music education an empowering and enriching journey for everyone, yet students who have experienced the juvenile justice system have unique perspectives that often lead to a complete mistrust or disinterest in formal learning,” says Moyes. “I believe music is the right language to get these students excited about learning and to show them they can do amazing things.”

This past semester, Mekhi took the Music Production Analysis course with Berklee Online professor Sean Slade, who famously produced, engineered, and mixed albums for Radiohead, Hole, the Dresden Dolls, Warren Zevon, Lou Reed, and more. Knowing his younger audience, Slade adapted the curriculum to focus more on hip-hop and rap, as well as musical concepts like prosody and groove, where he would bring out his acoustic guitar. 

Professor Sean Slade taught the Music Production Analysis course though Berklee Online’s partnership with the Department of Youth Services.

“Sean is very helpful,” says Mekhi. “Studying with him is different than a lot of teachers. Sean likes to play a lot of music during the Zoom meetings and it gives you a different context because there’s songs I would never play that actually sound good to me when he plays them. And then there’s the older songs; he taught me how rap started with the Sugarhill Gang. So it just showed me a lot of different aspects of what hip-hop came to today.”

Slade says that he learned a lot over the semester as well, and that the students turned him onto many artists that were new to him in their class discussions. 

“It really touched me that the students were very, very appreciative and they let me know it at the end of the class that they really enjoyed hanging out with the old man once a week to listen to music and to get some insights into how it was made,” says Slade. “And that was very gratifying to me to know that it was something that they might actually look forward to. What could be more fun than hanging around listening to music?”

On the other side of the US, Kenny, a student in the Probation Department’s Youth Development Academy in San Diego, is taking Berklee Online’s Music Production Fundamentals course. In a story produced by the County News Center, Kenny shares a similar sentiment to Mekhi about how music has helped him. 

“Music is teaching me how to express myself, honestly,” says Kenny. “I have a problem expressing the way I feel. I can lyrically tell somebody, I can write it down, and then this is how I would explain myself.” 

Kenny, a student in the Probation Department’s Youth Development Academy in San Diego, shares how learning music production has helped him express himself.

To date, Berklee Online courses are offered at nearly 30 juvenile justice agencies across the US, with a majority of them in Massachusetts. More than 80 students at juvenile justice agencies have taken Berklee Online courses in Music Foundations, Developing Your Artistry, Creative Writing, and the previously mentioned courses in music production. Moyes says that he is expecting to offer music business courses for the upcoming semester. 

Cindy Carvill, a Vocational Teaching Coordinator who has taught under the Collaborative for Educational Service’s contract for the Department of Youth Services for nearly 15 years, has seen the positive impact of music education on her students first-hand at the Zara Cisco Brough Center in Westborough, Massachusetts. 

Cindy Carvill is a Vocational Teaching Coordinator at the Zara Cisco Brough Center in Westborough, Massachusetts, who works with students taking Berklee Online courses.

“We’ve had math and English and psychology courses online before, but this is the first college experience that appeals to the creative aspect of students,” says Carvill, “where they can actually write or do music or think over the course of a real traditional semester.” 

In addition to music enrichment and earning college credit, one of the less obvious benefits of the initiative that Carvill points out is that Berklee Online courses provide students a tangible accomplishment that they can show their case managers. 

“I have one student who I’m thinking of, he’s a high school graduate, who came to us and said, ‘I don’t do school.’ . . . And all of a sudden I heard him doing music and saw that he listened to a lot of music and was a good writer,” says Carvill.  

She encouraged the student to sign up for a Berklee Online course, and because of his good performance, he was able to gain more privileges within their facility, like staying up later and having longer phone calls. 

“At one of these big meetings, he was very, very proud of the grades that he had gotten and the professor feedback,” says Carvill. “He actually printed out one of the feedback responses from his professor. I was very proud of him too.”

Looking forward to the future of this initiative, Moyes says that he would like to introduce more programming and to expand to more states to offer Berklee Online courses at juvenile justice agencies. 

“Success would be seeing students use the power of music to ignite a passion for learning,” says Moyes. “Ultimately, I would like all of our students to lead lives of purpose when going out into the world.”

 Published January 8, 2024