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Art in the Real World

Fairfax Academy brings graduates back for Alumni Career Day.

Sean Crane isn't used to getting up at 5:45 a.m. for school. A second-year college student, Crane prefers the late-to-bed, late-to-rise routine.

For a day, however, he was back in high school. Fairfax High School Academy for Communication Arts, a vocational program in the arts for students across Fairfax County, invited graduates to an Alumni Career Day Friday, Jan. 6. Alumni sat in on classes and spoke to current Academy students about the world beyond high school.

"[The Academy] set all of us up for what we want to do in college," said Crane. For him, that meant music production, which he started playing around with as an early teen. When he realized that the same names appeared in the production credits for all his favorite bands, he said, he began thinking seriously about music production. The Centreville High School student decided to enroll in the Academy's music and computer technology course. He now studies at Middle Tennessee State University near Nashville, Tenn.

Fairfax County has five different academy programs, at Marshall, Chantilly, Edison and West Potomac High Schools, each with its own focus. Fairfax Academy courses are two-point electives, and courses such as digital photography, Korean, and musical theater are the only ones of their kind in the county.

"Some students come in knowing what they want to do," said Academy career specialist Gwen Plummer. Others have no idea what college or career path to take, she said, just that they want to do something with their art.

Ethan Jones, Academy alumnus and junior at the Rochester Institute of Technology, felt much the same way. "I had the idea in the back of my head for a long time," he said. "In high school, I hadn't really discovered it that much."

Jones took a black and white photography class at Madison High School before working with digital film at the Academy. He went in knowing that he liked photography; he left knowing that fine-art photography was what he wanted to do with his life.

"At the beginning, [teacher Randy Jacobson] told us, 'I'm unlike any other teacher you ever had,'" said Jones. Along with teaching Photoshop and how to take pictures with digital equipment, Jacobson also imparted valuable information on how to survive as a working photographer.

"When I got to RIT, I realized how much of a help [the Academy] was," said Jones. Until then, he said, he had not realized how much he had learned in high school compared with other members of his class.

ON ALUMNI Career Day, Jones presented a series of photographs he had taken for a school project at RIT. He persuaded some of his friends at school to wade waist-deep into Lake Ontario and took their pictures with a medium-format film camera.

"I go through phases where I look for different things in photos, like when the light is really nice," he said. "[Jacobson] told me that all the pictures I took have good light in them."

Buki Peters, on the other hand, always knew she wanted to work in fashion design. As a child in Nigeria, Peters liked to visit her mother's seamstress and make doll dresses from fabric scraps. She took an interior decorating class, but discovered fairly quickly that she liked clothing more than curtains and enrolled in a fashion design course at the Academy.

"I used to experiment with clothes in school," she said. "I tried to recycle clothing, make a pair of pants into a skirt … I have two sisters and they never trusted to wear anything I made."

While she was still a Langley High School student, Peters produced a fashion show in a barn near her house in Great Falls, using classmates as models.

"Sometimes you like to do something, but if you don’t challenge yourself then you don’t do anything," said Peters. "I was very excited to play with fabric and colors."

Now, Peters is a senior at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She can look back on her high school fashion show and critique it, now that she has worked on real Fashion Week shows in the city and knows about the importance of themes and presentation. At Alumni Career Day, Peters brought back several of her pieces to show current students, including an outfit in a knit fabric she made in Italy.

Ninety percent of Academy fashion students go on to major in the same field, said fashion design teacher Barbara Galindo.

"They have ideas in their heads, and they carry those through to fruition," said Galindo. "It's so wonderful to see [the alumni] sharing so much of their experience with the students."

Plummer agreed. "The energy today is really high," she said. "The teachers are thrilled to have the students come back and share their experience beyond the academy … the alumni are having a great time too." This year was the first alumni day for the Academy, but Plummer said she hopes it becomes an annual event.

Once of the best parts of the Academy, said Peters, was being around other people with the same passion for design that she has.

"I was never really around kids who did fashion design," she said. "It's cool to see other designers and their styles, and cool to have people who like design as much as you do."