Groove U: Checking in as the city’s upstart music-industry college enters its second year

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From the August 22, 2013 edition

Groove U is a pioneering concept: a music industry trade school with a curriculum adapted to the music industry as it actually exists today. Building up steam for something like that takes time, hence only six students enrolled for the college’s first academic year, a far cry from the 70 founder and “primary catalyst” Dwight Heckelman originally hoped to attract.

But that steam is building, thanks in part to another pioneering concept. A recent pilot program with Columbus City Schools allows Groove U to offer full-ride scholarships to up to five graduating CCS students per year beginning this fall.

When Groove U took over Fifth Avenue Alternative Elementary School in Victorian Village two years ago, it agreed to pay CCS $10,600 in rent each month, which adds up to $127,200 per year. Upon learning about a promising music student who wanted to attend Groove U but couldn’t afford it, Heckelman approached CCS with a proposal.

“We said, ‘What if we stopped paying you rent, and instead took that money and gave scholarships to CCS students?’” Heckelman explained.

Groove U and the board of education worked out a plan to do just that. For each scholarship Groove U doles out to a CCS student, the district will provide the college an equivalent rent credit, up to five incoming students per year. The rent credit pays for a student’s first year at Groove U; the college matches those funds to pay for the scholarship’s second year, so up to 10 students at a time can be part of the program.

“I love that it’s helping students that… would have no other way,” Groove U publicist Ann Kinder said.

The proposal was approved June 18 at outgoing CCS Superintendent Gene Harris’ final school board meeting.

“Dr. Harris was real enthusiastic, and she kind of wanted to make it her swan song as she retired to basically get this implemented, so she pushed really hard and got approval for it,” Heckelman said.

Selection for the scholarships will be based one-third on need, one-third on academic merit and one-third on the X-factor of ambition and enthusiasm — “how badly do you want to be in music?” Groove U intends to fill all five slots for the upcoming semester, which begins Aug. 26. As of Aug. 8, at least three scholarships were awarded.

All told, the school expects to have 18 to 20 students enrolled this year, including all six from last year.

“We’re probably the only college in Ohio that can claim zero attrition last year,” Heckelman joked.

Those second-years are about to plunge into their areas of specialization after spending the past academic cycle sampling a little bit of everything. Heckelman estimated about 90 percent of prospective Groove U students say they want to do audio production, but after exposure to other fields like video, live sound and management, some of them choose a different path.

They’ll get a chance to try out all sorts of roles this school year with involvement in Independents’ Day, Crew Stadium’s Breakaway Music Festival, the second year of Groove U’s high school band battle Instaband, a benefit album for the local charity Music Loves Ohio and more. Another trip to Austin for SXSW is planned too; last year’s trip helped land multiple students summer internships.

Meanwhile, Groove U’s staff keeps learning too. Heckelman is working on updating the curriculum to include a deeper focus on festival planning and how to get the most out of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter.

They’re also building a career library that will be open to the public and seeking a financial partner for an internet radio station focused on local music. Groove U is partnering with its local neighborhood association to turn some unused space on its property — sorry, its campus — into a park. And they’ve opened up their classrooms a few days per week to Through Mind’s Eyes, a non-profit that trains at-risk youths in creative industries.

So, yeah, Groove U is going to be busy this fall, although it hasn’t exactly been placid over the summer with students constantly on site to work on various creative projects.

“I really thought it would be so quiet,” Kinder said, laughing.

Photos by Meghan Ralston