Spy Hop Productions: a different kind of school

By COLLIN McLACHLAN

Spy Hop Productions teaches self expression through multimedia

If a school had students only do one or two projects a semester, would that school be considered an effective learning facility? If you were to ask students at Spy Hop Youth Media Arts and Entertainment Center, the answer might be a resounding “yes.”

Spy Hop is a nonprofit organization that, according to its website, is committed to helping students ages 13 -19 “express their voice and with it create a positive change in their lives.” It does this by using digital technologies as a means of artistic expression. Spy Hop has programs that teach students self-expression through film, audio, music, web design and video game design.

Rick Wray and Erik Dodd founded Spy Hop in 1999. At the time, Wray and Dodd owned Higher Ground Learning, a for-profit academic tutoring facility. Matt Mateus, programs director at Spy Hop, said in an interview that what Wray and Dodd discovered while tutoring became the basis for forming Spy Hop.

“They found that when they introduced film and video into their tutoring it was way more engaging for the student,” Mateus said.

Since Spy Hop also focuses on the development of the student, rather than simply teaching them technical skills, it uses self-expression as a means to teach students principles such as community awareness, emotional competency and high productivity.

“Our success really comes when youth leave here as engaged productive citizens, they succeed in the work force or higher education and have an opportunity to share their voice with the rest of the world,” Mateus said.

In an effort to achieve this, Mateus told of five fundamental goals that Spy Hop focuses on for all of its programs. These goals focus around: providing a safe after-school program, fostering artistic expression, developing educational and workplace readiness skills, developing emotional competencies and increasing media literacy, personal awareness and global connections.

The theater room at Spy Hop

To better reach its vision, Spy Hop has a unique way of working with the students.

“We’re allowed to be different from a public school system. We’re allowed to sit down and really take the time to see what each student really wants to learn,” Matues said. “We really dig into, ‘what are the activities they are doing and how does that relate to our mission?’ ‘How does that relate to our program goals?’”

Because of this teaching technique, teachers at Spy Hop are called mentors. They spend one-on-one time with each of their students to establish a trusting and respectful relationship, along with helping with their projects.

This became apparent when Mateus, who’s a mentor in the music program, was giving a tour of the studio. He noticed a game-design student eating popcorn near the computers.

“Be careful with that popcorn. I don’t want butter all over the keyboard,” Mateus said while walking by. The student responded with a respectful, “Sure thing. Sorry Matt.”

“I still keep in contact with a dozen of my old students that I go to lunch with,” Mateus said. “The feedback I get is really positive.”

Shannalee Otanez, 24, an instructor for Loud & Clear said, “I love it all. I love seeing young people feel empowered to believe in themselves, and to feel like they have something important to share.” She feels she’s in a great position as a mentor at Spy Hop since she’s a former student. “I benefited from it myself, so I get what kind of impact it can have,” she said in a phone interview.

Shalom Khokhar, right, works on his audio project.

Shalom Khokhar, 19, from South Salt Lake, has come to understand that impact as well. Khokhar is a student in the audio apprenticeship class. He said the two main things that Spy Hop has taught him are priorities and responsibility.

“Once you come in, you sit down and it’s all about your work ethic, which you can apply in your other life too, in social settings, school, education, whatever,” Khokhar said.

When asked what his favorite part of Spy Hop was, Khokhar said, “I’d say the respect that Spy Hop has toward its students. They have a certain trust that they give to students to say, ‘OK come in here, use our equipment and stay in here as long as you want.’”

Spy Hop isn’t just helping students to become better people; it also helps to prepare them for the work force. The students work on projects during after-school hours using modern digital equipment. Khokhar and his apprenticeship class, for example, are currently working on the sound for a film produced by Spy Hop called “River’s End,” which is a story about a boy who, after his dad leaves his mom, goes and plays by a river and meets an imaginary friend. Him and his friend then run away and have some adventures. Khokhar says that a project like this takes skill in sound editing which he is happy to be developing.

Mateus is proud that Spy Hop is helping to create the next work force in the industry. Along with personal and life skills, Spy Hop is providing its students with a leg up by giving them hands-on training.

“To be able to walk into a studio and say, ‘I can work for you guys. I know Pro Tools. I know where to set these microphones up,’ at 17 years old. That’s crazy,” Mateus said. “Because what are they going to be doing when they’re 25?”