Healdsburg High's AM/FM program (which stands for Art, Music, Film and Media) is open to all 10th and 11th grade students.
If you had been asked to fill in the blank “High school is ___” when you were in 10th grade, what would you have written?
For many students, their response is something along the lines of “hell” or “jail” — and with all the social and emotional challenges teenagers face during this time, in addition to their academic obligations, it isn’t terribly surprising.
Among the current efforts being made to galvanize students’ education at Healdsburg High School is a program called AM/FM, which stands for Art, Music, Film and Media.
The program, which recently concluded its second year, is a learning community open to all 10th and 11th grade students that attend HHS.
It bridges the arts with students’ core classes of English and History, and was inspired by some of the fundamental questions circling around education: How can we create an environment in which every student feels recognized, is given the opportunity to pursue topics that inspire them, and thereby has a greater chance to achieve not only academic success, but career readiness as well?
These can be daunting questions, particularly in the context of evolving standards and routine assessments.
With an eye towards innovation, Erin Fender, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the Healdsburg Unified School District, applied for a grant in 2015 that could provide the funding to bring such a vision to life.
After securing the grant, a collaborative team of teachers was assembled to create the curriculum: Dennis Ojeda-Jones (English), John Chevalier (Film & Media) and Brian Osborn (History).
They first explored what they needed to teach, and from there puzzled out how they could teach the material in such a way that students would be more engaged, more enthused and come away with a deeper understanding.
Using art as the lens of common interest, they developed a multidisciplinary approach that would expand upon the standard curriculum.
By breaking down the confines of what one class could reasonably achieve in a year, it catalyzed the formation of new perspectives and the growth of interpersonal skills amongst the students.
The AM/FM program was then piloted in the 2015-2016 school year, and met with praise not only from the teachers, but from participating students as well.
They took field trips to visit museums, did team-building exercises and gained a greater appreciation for the arts through their exposure.
Everyone wanted to do it again. With the grant money now used however, the AM/FM team had to come up with a new plan if they wanted to develop this program and keep it going — so they turned to HEF, the Healdsburg Education Foundation.
As the fundraising arm of the Healdsburg Unified School District, HEF raises money not only for the high school, but for the public elementary and middle schools as well.
Though HEF chooses a handful of top funding priorities each year to focus on, it also works hard to find donors in the community that can be matched with additional program requests that reflect the donors’ own passions and interests.
Being a program focused on art and media, AM/FM was fortunate enough to receive sponsorship from a fellow art enthusiast in Circe Sher and the Sher family — owners of Hotel Healdsburg and h2hotel — giving it the necessary financial support to pursue a second year.
The highlight of this second year was AM/FM’s field trip that took the students first to Tahoe, and then on to the Manzanar Internment camp, the setting for their assigned reading: “Farewell to Manzanar.”
For a large number of these students, this trip was the first time they ever set foot outside of Sonoma County, and they were thrilled.
Their brief time in Tahoe was spent reveling in nature, and gathering around the campfire to play music and share poetry they’d written for the occasion.
Although the teachers admitted they were braced for shenanigans, the only curfew breaking was to watch the sun rise and set over the awe-inspiring lake.
During their visit to Manzanar, students roamed the long-vacant site, taking pictures and videos with their individual Chromebooks — funded at the high school by the John Jordan Foundation.
As they toured the grounds, peeking into the remaining structures and gathering around the burial monument erected by the Japanese, the subject matter ceased to be just an assignment to get through.
The historic gravity of the site was palpable, filled with the ghosts of those interned, offered a sobering reminder of how fear of The Other can drive us to do terrible things.
This was profound for the students, and opened up conversations about institutionalized racism and the continuous need to learn from history.
In speaking with Ojeda-Jones about his takeaways from the year, he referenced this change in the students as the greatest outcome of all.
For those who arrive in his classes each sophomore year, he has often observed an acute desensitization that has taken place as they’ve moved through the school system.
Some feel there aren’t opportunities that speak to their interests and abilities, and others are just over the structured system that is inherent in a public education.
The AM/FM program offers a way in which students can break out of this culture and feel recognized in a way that, for many, they’ve never experienced.
The results thus far have been heartening: a growing empowerment amongst the students, a rejuvenated desire to learn, a greater sense of responsibility for schoolwork and a developing set of leadership skills as the older students in class help mentor the newer ones.
It has, according to Ojeda-Jones, brought out the very best in all of his students, and the almost familial bond they have formed as a result has generated “a totally different outcome” both personally and academically than would have arisen otherwise.
For more information about the Healdsburg Education Foundation, where every dollar goes toward increasing opportunities available to local students, visit www.hefschools.com or look for HEF on Facebook.
Kira Ehrmann is the Development Director for the Healdsburg Education Foundation.