Inside the Canon Perdido Street entrance to the Santa Barbara High School (SBHS) campus, there’s a small sign on the right directing visitors to a low-slung building that’s just past the chickens. This is VADA, SBHS’s Visual Arts & Design Academy. The school-within-a-school that started in 1999 is now well established, with a current enrollment of 165 students in grades 10-12. Next year, there are plans to expand course offerings into the 9th grade curriculum. Fifteen years in, VADA is one of the district’s top high school programs and one of its only full-fledged academies.
When I visited the facility last week, school was over for the day and only a handful of students remained to continue working or clean up after their projects. The academy’s director Daniel Barnett and veteran art instructor and founding VADA faculty member Brooke Van Der Kar met me at the door, and even before we were seated at one of the big worktables, I could sense that this was a space of great warmth, safety, and creativity. Once I had listened to Barnett and Van Der Kar for a while, I realized something else — this art school includes a serious academic program. Thirty percent of the curriculum requires the hands-on digital design skills that are valued in today’s contemporary workforce. VADA’s sequential approach to art and design supports students as they discover and master the processes they will encounter over and over again as working adults. To make these lessons more memorable, VADA teachers take their students on frequent field trips, and not only to museums and galleries. One recent day found the group gathering inside the design department at Patagonia for a question-and-answer session with the team responsible for creating new products.
In the summer between 11th and 12th grades, VADA students are encouraged to intern for work experience with a variety of mentors and organizations ranging all the way from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s education department to the office of architect Jeff Shelton. As an in-year follow-up, VADA invites area artists to perform residencies in which they assist the students in creating a project. The current residency has students in a frenzy of ’zine-making, cranking out small runs of quickly designed improvised magazines for each other and the school. The ’zine project models the same iterative design process that professional engineers use to crack difficult problems in materials science work.
All students in VADA study the standard required core curriculum of Santa Barbara High School, but even that they do with a difference. In VADA classes, English and history assignments are as likely to be triptychs as they are essays, and students work together to explore issues of identity that are relevant to their lives. Barnett and Van Der Kar are understandably proud of how far VADA has come in recent years in terms of representing the full range of SBHS’s students. VADA demographics in 2014-15 mirror those of the school at large. In other words, this is not an elitist operation, and everyone involved benefits from that.
On Saturday, February 28, parents, alumni, and distinguished artist friends of VADA will gather at the Santa Barbara Art Foundry in the Funk Zone for a night of celebration and art-driven fundraising at the annual VADA Draw event. The price of a ticket to this year’s event, which has a “Rain Dance” theme, includes admission for two, food, drinks, music, and an original work of art to take home. The last detail is what makes this event special. For no extra cost, and without having to outbid anyone, attendees will choose from more than 100 works. Some are the creations of VADA students, while the majority of the offerings are donations from top area artists and celebrities. The party takes place from 7-10 p.m. For more information about the event or the academy, visit vadasbhs.org.