Freestyle: A creative portal into the real world
October 13, 2020
Creativity isn’t always prioritized in typical high school classes, often restricting student’s abilities to immerse themselves in the arts and think imaginatively. Observing this pattern, the Mountain View–Los Altos District created the Freestyle Academy of Communication Arts & Technology program — commonly referred to as Freestyle — in order to help MVLA students explore these passions in a formally dedicated environment in 2006.
Offered to juniors and seniors interested in self-expression, the academy focuses on project-based learning rather than the notorious lecture-filled classes high school is known for. Freestyle students exercise their critical thinking and artistry through mandatory English and Digital Media classes and a supplemental class of choice — film, design or animation.
“When you graduate from college, you’re most likely going to go into a job that doesn’t even exist today,” Freestyle Program Coordinator and Digital Media teacher Leo Florendo said. “My goal and Freestyle’s goal is to get students prepared to do anything in terms of the creative arts. I want them to be unstoppable.”
Freestyle not only teaches students to adapt to any given prompt, but gives them the opportunity to discover and showcase their individuality throughout the process. The few basic guidelines given for each project allow students to make it their own and fully express their artistic freedom.
“The level of imagination that comes out every year and what our students produce from just one assignment is so diverse,” Florendo said. “The students’ personality, their background, their culture and the way they think [all impact the final product]. That’s always the coolest part about Freestyle.”
The same way each student brings their individuality into Freestyle, they are also able to take something out of the program that is especially impactful for them, even more so for students set on pursuing the arts beyond high school.
“Knowing that I want to major in film, I have no doubts that my film teacher will be able to prepare me over the next two years to succeed in college,” film student junior Reed Keenan said. “I could even create a future career path from this experience.”
Misconceptions and Challenges
Freestyle’s program is a valuable addition to the MVLA School District and not the rumored “easy way out” of course work for high school students.
Even with Freestyle’s hands-on and flexible method of learning, the program is stringent and requires dedication as well as independence.
“[People] have this outside observance of Freestyle as being pretty easy,” Florendo noted. “But once you get here, you realize, ‘Oh, this is pretty rigorous.’”
Design student junior Gaya Lesser added that Freestyle might even be more work than what she experienced in her freshman and sophomore years at Los Altos High School combined.
“There isn’t anyone regularly checking that you have your work done before the due date,” Gaya said. “You just have to learn time management or you’ll get behind really fast. However, it’s easier to get the work done since I’m actually interested in it.”
An additional challenge in the Freestyle curriculum is the immense learning curve that comes with using the complicated equipment students are expected to master, along with the introduction of a more abstract approach to learning.
“We’re asking students to learn a lot of sophisticated concepts and technology,” Florendo said. “We ask first-year juniors to think abstractly and conceptually, and it’s really hard for them.”
As so many of the learning challenges come from growing accustomed to this advanced technology, working from home due to COVID-19 has only added extra difficulties. To ensure a functional work environment for all of its students, a lot of money went into providing everyone with drawing tablets.
While Freestyle provides the necessary tools for students to complete their courses at home, staff members have cut the curriculum down due to fewer instructional hours with everyone off-campus.
As Freestyle’s record shows, students are consistently dedicated to getting the most out of their time with the program. With this pattern of determination, these decreased hours haven’t stopped them from adapting and later flourishing in the demanding, novel environment.
“After a while, they get used to thinking creatively and then move on to develop some pretty cool stuff by the end of their junior year,” Florendo said. “By their senior year, they’re flying and developing deep thinking concepts.”
The individual documentary project, assigned to students for the last 15 years, gives students the opportunity to demonstrate this immense growth, bringing out the most genuine parts of every individual. Despite recurring requirements, Florendo notes how each year brings an entirely new perspective to the community.
“People still find many untold stories in the community that are really unique; it’s been quite interesting for me to learn about all these different people and places,” Florendo said.
While some specific projects, such as the documentary assignment, have remained consistent over the years, Freestyle is known to be an ever-changing program.
“There’s not been a single year that’s been the same as the previous one,” Florendo said. “We’re constantly tweaking [our program] and we keep adapting because we have to. In the 21st century, technology changes pretty fast, as well as student ideas.”
This optimistic outlook is just a testament to the ability of the academy to persevere through all of the struggles of distance learning and beyond, just as they’ve done for nearly a decade and a half.
“Nothing is ever the same,” Florendo said. “We expect things to change and we welcome it so that our program can always become a little better.”
Apart from guiding students to explore their own style and identity, Freestyle additionally fosters a close community of equally dedicated classmates who work to bring out the best in one another.
“No one really knows if you’re from Los Altos or Mountain View, and it doesn’t really matter,” Florendo said. “When students come to Freestyle, they are all Freestyle students and in a community of artists passionate about what they do. They come together as this creative group that supports and encourages each other to grow without competition.”
The opportunity to meet new, like-minded people is one that is not taken for granted by its students even in the virtual environment.
“Freestyle is like its own little community,” Reed said. “Not that I get tired of the community at LAHS, but I think it’s also really cool to meet so many new people. It’s just an interesting experience that I’m very grateful for because I know little to no other districts offer the same educational opportunity.”
This sense of community created in Freestyle is carried into the rest of the students’ lives and isn’t quickly forgotten when they graduate.
“A great many graduates keep in touch with us, return to visit and share their experiences in college and the working world,” English teacher Jason Greco said. “I think our tight-knit community is the very reason for that. Students often find an identity and sincere acceptance here. For some, Freestyle is and always will be a kind of sanctuary.”