Every morning just as the third period bell rings, a dozen or so students file into Wendy Dowling’s art class at Alta Vista Continuation High School. At first glance, the class appears similar to a morning class at any morning high school, with some students alert and talkative and others who look like they could use a few more hours of sleep.
Scores of past projects cover the walls of the classroom and a variety of craft supplies litter the front table, waiting to be used for new creations. And yet, there’s something about this class that makes it entirely unique. In a chair at the front of the room, amidst the paint and construction paper sits Joan Dunkle, Dowling’s mother and a mentor in the class, as she has done nearly every school day for the last three years.
Since Dunkle first started helping out, the two have been an iconic mother-daughter duo in the Alta Vista art program. Dowling started working at the school in 2005 and Dunkle began volunteering regularly in 2012.
From the beginning of her teaching career, Dowling said that she hoped to have the opportunity to work at an alternative high school because of the intimacy a small school setting could provide. Located within walking distance of her home in Mountain View, Alta Vista was the perfect choice.
Two years after Dowling began working at Alta Vista, she took over the art program at the school and has since found her niche amid slabs of canvas and tubs of washable paint. She often spends her weekends organizing supplies or collecting materials from art stores around the area.
On a given day at work, Dowling’s role changes dramatically by the hour. In addition to art, she also teaches math and health classes and holds teaching credentials in all three subjects. Since many of her students take
all three classes, it is not uncommon for her to teach the same student several times per day. Dowling treasures the close relationships this setup allows her to have with students, whom she describes as uniquely compassionate and incredibly resilient.
“There are seasons in your life for different kinds of teachers,” Dowling said. “I tell the kids at Alta Vista that I am not the smartest math teacher they will ever have. They will have opportunities to be educated by math teachers who know and understand a whole lot more math than me. But they will not be taught by anyone who knows them or loves them more than I do.”
Students benefit from the instruction and guidance of Dowling’s mother Joan Dunkle, as well, because for many students at the school, art class would not be the same without Dunkle. As an artist herself, it seemed only natural for Dunkle to get involved with Alta Vista when she moved from Florida to California to live with her daughter after her husband died. The school’s principal, Bill Pierce, welcomed her into the school and since then she has become a fixture at Alta Vista, providing art instruction and mentorship to students both inside and outside of the classroom.
Joan Dunkle contributes to the class in her own way, working in her daughter’s class alongside her as a volunteer mentor.
“There are some students who I can work with on a daily basis,” Dunkle said. “Usually [it is] through the arts, helping them to create whatever they want to create. It’s a great way for them to express themselves.”
The goal of the art program at Alta Vista is composite; it serves both to academically prepare students for college by fostering the academic language of art, as well as encouraging creative expression. Although the class is an Art History and Art Appreciation class, students still have many opportunities to work on their own hands-on projects.
“A lot of kids [who go to alternative schools] are really talented in art,” she said. “That makes art really fun to teach at Alta Vista.”
To encourage self-expression, Dowling and Dunkle guide students to create their own piece of art by planning out lessons carefully to encourage students to express themselves through the various mediums. In each unit, students create their own piece of art in the style of the artist they are studying. Dowling says that seeing what the students come up with is one of the most interesting parts of her job.
One of Dunkle’s favorite projects is the Frida Kahlo journal, a project that she does with her students every year.
“We [as a class] study Frida Kahlo and the purpose of her artwork and then we create journals that serve the same purpose in our lives,” Dunkle said.
Together, mother and daughter make art class a unique and memorable experience for the students at Alta Vista.
“When I see the kids walk [at graduation] I’m thrilled for them,” Dunkle said. “Our goal is to get them through college and on their way to a decent life so that they have something to look back on and think ‘I got help here. Someone cared about me.’”