When Sebastian Ayala came from El Salvador to Santa Ana at the start of his freshman year of high school he didn’t know much about the place he would spend the next four years.
But that changed when Ayala was given a tour of the academies at Valley High School.
“I thought, ‘Well, definitely I need to get into the new media program because it’s everything I want to learn about,’” Ayala said. “It’s what our current age is about. Our generation is so into phones and into technology and computers.”
But he had little idea then, the experience he was in for.
Ayala, now a senior, is one of about 100 students in the academy’s animation pathway and part of a mentor program with ACME Animation in which they upload their work and get feedback from professional animators. Mentors make classroom visits and hold bi-weekly video conferences with students from around the district.
Henri Brownell, an ACME mentor at Valley High School, said his goal is to give students an idea of what will be expected of them as working professionals.
“We hold them to standards,” Brownell said. “We make sure kids are uploading files correctly, that they are actually communicating, that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and if we don’t see that, we will encourage them to do those things so that we can keep everybody moving at the same pace.”
The ACME mentor program has operated in Santa Ana for about 10 years but has expanded this year, in part thanks to a $6 million grant given to Santa Ana Unified through the California Department of Education’s Career Pathways Trust.
Though mentors are not compensated for their work with students, Brownell, who went through an ACME educational pathway, said he sees it as an opportunity to help develop the next generation of animators. The use of video conferencing and online platforms for work submission allow the mentors to provide 24/7 feedback even when they cannot be in the classroom.
ACME also provides curricula and detailed lesson plans for teachers to follow. At Valley, students take a class introducing them to graphic design their sophomore year, followed by a 2D animation course in their junior year and a 3D animation course as seniors.
J. Gonzalez, ACME’s Director of Special Projects, said schools are becoming increasingly focused on preparing students for potential careers as well as higher education.
“One of the things for kids that’s key is making education relevant,” Gonzalez said, “Everybody talks about rigorous, and nobody is going to dispute the importance of rigor, but relevant seems to be a moving target that’s hard for everybody to identify.”
Jose Garcia, who teaches in all three levels of Valley’s animation program, graduated from Valley High School in 1999. At the time, he said, graphic design and animation weren’t offered as classes, so he got involved through an after-school club. He said those skills helped him secure jobs doing motion graphics and working in video production.
This year academy enrollment has nearly doubled, and Garcia said he hopes to give students more experience with game design. The district also works in tandem with the High School Inc. Foundation to provide field trips and guest lecturers and purchase new equipment. Garcia also hopes to get virtual-reality headsets and a new 3D printer for the classroom.
But despite advances in technology, the principles of animation have remained largely the same. Students in the 2D animation class still do exercises like animating the bouncing ball or making the flour sack fall, requirements of animation auditions during the beginning of companies like Disney.
“We’re teaching the same concepts from the 1940s,” Garcia said. “Those are the laws and principles of animation, and those are the guiding principles of animators today.”
But teachers and mentors say it’s about more than teaching students animation.
“The kids are getting a chance to learn public speaking, vocabulary, writing skills, job skills, plus a specific skill that’s going to help them with their career,” Brownell said.
And Ayala said a portion of the course is devoted to networking and perfecting students’ interviewing skills and elevator pitch.
Said Garcia: “My goal for them is when they leave high school they know about social media, they know about marketing, they know about web design. We have units embedded into our curriculum where it’s not just animation. We show them how to promote themselves and how to be employable.”
Senior Jonathan Gomez prefers drawing to 3D animation, but regardless of what career he goes into, he said, the program has helped assure him that there are career paths that fit his interests.
“There are many opportunities out there because design is everywhere and art will always be there,” Gomez said.