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Successful Video-Arts Program on Chopping Block at Inner-City School in Long Beach

Posted: Apr 26, 2012

LONG BEACH -- The lights in the full-size television studio illuminate and hum as they warm up, while people prep the equipment and peer into the large camera lenses to get ready to tape the show.

It looks and feels like a professional TV studio, and that is exactly what it is.

The studio is the reason why freshman Seth Reeder and sophomore Ricky Wood – both attend downtown Long Beach’s Renaissance High School For the Arts -- eagerly get up and head to school each day.

It’s not just a class, the boys explain -- it’s hands-on training for what they eventually want: a job in the television business.

“This class is job-oriented and it’s fun,” Reeder said. “This is what I wake up for in the morning — just to be in this class.”

But the class that feeds their passion faces a grim outlook when the school year comes to an end in June. In March, Renaissance High’s video production instructor Richard Hilgenberg received a pink slip, which means he may not be returning to teach next school year due to budget cutbacks.

The Video Production Program at Renaissance – it started in 2004 -- had 57 students enrolled last September. But when word spread of the class being possibly eliminated, many students dropped out to enroll in another elective before it was too late.

Last year, the program was saved temporarily by donations from a local nonprofit, the Long Beach Education Foundation. As a result, 24 students, including Reeder and Wood, who had patiently held on to their hope of the class remaining, were able to stay through the end of this year.

This time around, the program may not be as lucky.

LBUSD has made more than $200 million in cuts and layoffs since 2008, and faces a worst-case scenario deficit of more than $189 million by 2014, if Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax-initiative plan to generate more funds for public education fails on the November ballot.

In 2010-2011, the district cut 800 teachers from its 77 schools, and this year, LBUSD is aiming to slash another $15 to $20 million for 2012-13, which means 308 LBUSD teachers, including Hilgenberg, will probably not be returning to their classrooms.

Renaissance High is an inner-city campus the smallest of the Long Beach high schools, with only 500 students enrolled. Of those, 329 (65.7 percent) are enrolled in the free-and-reduced lunch program, and many of those students have found solitude in Renaissance’s career training programs, such as Video Production. For many, the school art programs offer one of the only alternatives to staying off the streets.

“I know that losing this program will have a dramatic impact on a lot of students,” Hilgenberg added. “Many of the students have told me that taking this class has allowed them to do better in their other classes, such as math and science. We’re a small, inner-city school and this class makes a difference to these students.”

He also teaches an afterschool video production class through the Long Beach School for Adults (LBSA), a separate evening class for continuation or adult school students. Since 1995, Hilgenberg has helped train adults and students for careers in film production.

The double-tiered program allows students from high schools across the area to take the evening class, and Reeder and Wood are two of the students who dedicate their evenings to being behind the camera lens.

“The program is laid out just like it was a job,” Wood explained. “At first, I thought that it was scary — working with cameras. Our teacher treats us as if we were his employees, and I like how it is to be an employee because it’s like having hands-on, real training for our future jobs.”

Those enrolled in the evening class learn more advanced television production skills, such as field reporting, electronic newsgathering and multi-cam shooting for shows.

“This (tied together with the Renaissance class) really is what keeps us active and available to be here,” Hilgenberg said regarding the adult education tier of the program. “If Renaissance just has a class, that’s going to be very difficult for me or the program to sustain. By having the double-tiered class… Renaissance students can go into this class (adult education) or go to a higher level, basically.”

The students in the program also learn how to write scripts and set up the studio, operate cameras and lighting, and produce live tapings of the school’s performances, in addition to filming the programs aired on the school district’s Ed.TV news show.

Parents, students and supporters of the program have stepped up in the community to try to raise at least 50 percent of Hilgenberg’s salary, to keep the class going for another year.

If he isn’t brought back for another year, Hilgenberg said he will continue to teach the adult evening video class, but has no other options for employment. He said he would take some time off before finding something else in the video production industry.

The group’s first fundraising effort recently garnered more than $2,000 towards the program.

It’s a gamble, but for now, Reeder, Wood, Hilgenberg and the other students can only hope that their fundraising efforts pay off so they can continue to make their dreams of working in TV come true.

“In this class, we’re not seen as students,” Wood said. “We’re just like employees, and it is pushing me to do my best.”

Stephanie Minasian is a fellow with New America Media's Youth Education Fellowship. The fellowship is a six-month long program for youth reporters aged 16-24 on education reporting. It is sponsored by the California Education Policy Fund.
  This story also appeared on Voicewaves, NAM's hyper-local youth-led media project serving Long Beach, which is supported by The California Endowment.

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