Digital Art Afterschool Studio: An example of a Career Oriented Curriculum

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Why does this matter in real life?

Escalation: A Student Graphics Company is an After-School Program that draws a straight line between learning and career.
Escalation: A Student Graphics Company is an After-School Program that draws a straight line between learning and career.

One of the chief complaints you hear from students is “How can I actually apply what I’m learning to the real world?”  And while there is no helping Algebra in that department, there are a myriad of other subjects that can benefit from a dose of real world interaction.  This is what the Digital Art Afterschool Studio is doing.  It’s taking a cue from larger real world curriculum programs, such as Career Oriented Curriculum and focusing on digital artistry and community involvement.

What is Career Oriented Curriculum and how can it benefit students?

According to District Administration, a website focused on creative solutions for school districts: “A summer job for a 16-year-old typically involves serving coffee, scooping ice cream, or babysitting the neighborhood children. Some students at Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Public Schools, however, spent their summer vacation designing a children’s Web site for the city of Miami Beach. An increasing number of students are finding themselves mingling among professionals with internships in local businesses—the culmination of a work-based learning curriculum.”  These real world experiences are invaluable to students as they do two things:

  1. Reality Check Experiences like this show the students the real life application for what they are learning.
  2. On the Job Experience Projects like the digital after school studio create professional connections that go beyond graduation and help move our students forward professionally.

One organization with a stellar track record in this area is the National Academy Foundation (NAF).  Since 1982 they have worked tirelessly with teachers and schools to create and implement career-oriented curriculum.  Schools that work with the NAF will frequently require an internship with a local business before allowing the student to graduate. According to NAF:

“Over 90 percent of NAF students graduate from high school, and four out of five students continue to college or postsecondary education. Of those students, 52 percent earn a bachelor’s degree.”

How do you do it?

Students practice graphic design in a professional context - designing for real businesses.
Students practice graphic design in a professional context – designing for real businesses.

So how are the teachers and students at Overton High School, where the Digital Art Studio program has been in full swing for two years, applying the idea of career oriented curriculum to their specific needs?

According to their proposal “The after-school Digital Arts Studio program … enables students to build professional-level skills, as they develop their artistic portfolios. … The students will be introduced to client-based projects where they are expected to develop a working relationship with the client resulting in a marketable product.”

The program operates similar to a small graphic design studio.  Taking place three times a week for two hours after school, students have the opportunity to really put work into a portfolio, and increase the possibility of scholarships and if a professional internship is tacked on, some AP credit.  Projects are introduced from the needs of real world clients who the students and teachers reach out to.  The projects can be anything from helping a local business create a print add to designing a website for a church event.  This helps create crucial bridges between the school and the community around them, ultimately strengthening both.

This program has had to start small, accommodating only a few students at first.   The principal and instructors consult with local ad agencies to create an interview process for students to simulate a job interview.  The students selected work together to create a marketing campaign to alert the community to their presence and start soliciting clients.  It is their hope that this model will, after a couple years, become self-sustaining.

What is the impact of a Career Oriented Curriculum?

So where are the students that have already passed through this program? Here are just a few of the success stories.

  • Olivia Campbell, a second year participant, was awarded a full scholarship to attend University of Tennessee’s summer program for her Digital Art exhibited in the West Tennessee Regional Art competition last winter.
  • Darion Beasley, King Hobson, and Maurico Farmer (all second year participants) were selected as three of the thirty-three students chosen to be represented in the Frist’s Museum’s exhibition Tennessee’s Top Young Artists.
  • This year’s West Tennessee Regional Art Competition just released their awards and participants currently in the program won Best Graphic Design work, Best Photographic work, and placed in several other categories.
  • One of the program’s participants, Cesar Pita, was just offered a $66,000 scholarship, the Presidential Scholarship, from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, one of the finest art colleges.

And these are just a few stories of success as this program continues to grow.

It’s clear from the work that NAF does and how Overton High School applies it to their own program that career-oriented curriculum puts students at a huge advantage over their peers that do not participate.  By giving students an education grounded in reality, rather than existing in the abstract on the white board, we strengthen their chances of succeeding in the real world.  Forging professional connections early on only increases the chance of future employment and education.  By also giving students a personal stake in how their work is perceived by the community at large we give them the opportunity to push themselves to create something they can be proud of.

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