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Can This Academy Requiring Arts Classes Get More Struggling LAUSD Students To Graduation?

17-year-old Lamar Outlaw ended our tour in his favorite spot on campus, a big, open arts lab on the second floor (Carla Javier/KPCC).
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Here's a new solution to the old problem of high school dropouts: If you get kids to care about art, they'll be engaged in school, so they'll get their credits, graduate, and go to college or get a job.

More than 15,000 high school students in Los Angeles County dropped out of school in the 2016-2017 school year. And while Los Angeles Unified didn't publicly report an official dropout rate, it has been actively working to bring dropouts across the board under 10% by 2020.

And the nation's largest school district is now trying a new focus on the arts to keep some struggling students in the classroom. That focus is what makes the Design and Media Arts Academy different from other schools also catering to students who don't make it in the traditional school system.

The new academy -- a partnership between LAUSD and an arts non-profit called artworxLA.-- requires eight hours of art classes each week.

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"One of main things that I hear when I come here is laughter. I walk into a classroom and I see engagement. I see students who are interested in what they're doing, excited to be exploring," artworxLA executive director Cynthia Campoy Brophy explained. "I see students who are working collaboratively."

The goal isn't just to get students to graduate. It's also to give them skills they can use to get real, paying jobs afterwards.

To that end, they offer hands-on training in a number of areas in demand in creative industries, learning Adobe Creative suites and Ableton music software in computer lab.

"They're learning how to conceptualize a project," Campoy Brophy said. "And then they're learning skills of editing, sound editing, image editing, how to take an idea into actually realizing it into a project, and these are skills that can be used in the marketplace."

Lamar Outlaw, 17, has been at the continuation school since January.

Outlaw noticed an immediate difference after the arts academy got started this September.

"Everybody comes in here, and we just do our thing. We just have fun. We don't really clash with each other," he explained. "We integrate with each other."

He said he and his classmates participate more now, in projects and in giving feedback on the future of the school facilities.

Outlaw said it's helping him achieve his goals of getting enough academic credits to graduate, and to go on to college.

"I have to start grinding and doing what I'm supposed to do to be where I'm supposed to be," he said. "And the way I'm doing that is by visualizing, and believing."

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He said those are skills he's learned through arts classes.

Take a tour of the new arts academy below.

The new Design + Media Arts Academy is located at the former home of South LA middle school. (Photo by Carla Javier / LAist)

Cynthia Campoy Brophy, executive director of artworxLA:

"Central High is a continuation high school, which is small learning environments which exists for students who have not succeeded in comprehensive high school. They're located all over the city in alternative sites. This one is in an old middle school ... Most of our sites we work with them two hours a week. At this Design and Media Arts Academy, artworxLA will program 8 hours a week of arts programs in addition to their other academic subjects taught by LAUSD teachers."

As part of opening the new arts academy, bleak hallways were replaced with pops of bright color. (Photo by Carla Javier / LAist)
Lamar Outlaw:
"This wall here was just plain. But they made it completely out of paint and tape. Everything up here, all the colors, is all new ... This is the first school I've been to that had colorful hallways. The rest of them, their hallways were all the same colors ... No school has anything better than what this school has."

In some of the classrooms, there are couches to help students feel more comfortable as they complete their school work (Photo by Carla Javier/LAist).
Lamar Outlaw:
"This room is the best room. It's like a lounge but then it's a workspace. If you want, you could sit down and get really into it and just get straight to work, or you could come and relax on the couch and do your work ... When you have this class, it's like you're hanging out but you're still getting your work done. You're comfortable. You're at school, and you're having fun."

As part of their multi-media arts class, the students are making dioramas of places they feel safe (Photo by Carla Javier/LAist).
Natasha Khan, teaching artist:
"In this class we are designing and making our own worlds out of wooden crates and boxes, and the idea was for them to think about what their sanctuary or safe space might look like. ... We've been doing collaging, cut up poetry, stream of conscious writing, meditation, just to get their creative juices flowing ... I feel like it's really nice to see what each of them individually come up with, everything is different, and I just want to keep pushing them to connect with the deeper parts of themselves and keep pushing those boundaries to communicate who they really feel they are. I think sometimes that's hard to know when you're a teenager."

"The Garden." (Photo by Carla Javier / LAist)
Lamar Outlaw:
"We don't have a name for it yet, but I want to call it The Garden because a garden is where you grow ... You don't have any bad in there, you just grow.

We get to decide what we want in there. We want a little theater in the corner, we want a podcast -- and we already have the rug her, which is gonna be where we sit down. And we're gonna have a table and stuff. We're gonna have a lot in here."

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