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Las Artes students focus on GED through art

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Jojo Ali, left, and Sebastian Saenz work on a team project during Murals class at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson. Ali wants to go into the culinary field. He then wants to earn a degree in literature and go into screenwriting.

Many students who come to Las Artes have not had success in traditional high school. Some may have started and stayed in high school for a number of years but have not accumulated enough credits to graduate. Others have not cared for the social challenges and drama of high school life. And some may have had injuries or medical issues that forced them to drop out. But low wage jobs and limited prospects have given way to fresh starts and higher goals.

“The main goal of Las Artes has always been for students to get their GED. But the heart of the program is the murals class," says education coordinator Patty Short. "It is the thing that sets the school apart from other programs. And it provides, for students who learn by doing, a hook to hang on to. Murals emphasizes the soft skills like organization, working and getting along with others, following directions, being on time, working independently. And it gives students a track record of responsibility and completion."

The full 32-week GED program consists of four eight-week levels including Basic Education 1 and 2, Murals class and GED class. Students age 17-22 are eligible to enroll. They take placement tests in reading, language and math. The first eight-week session requires a fifth-grade level of reading to enter. All four levels run year round so applicants can be enrolled into any level based on the placement test results.

The ideal class size is 15 kids per level for for a total enrollment of 50-60 in the school. Students say they get more one-on-one attention than in larger high schools.

Las Artes is funded by the Pima County Board of Supervisors through Pima County One Stop Youth Program.

Sebastian Saenz, 17, applies black outliner to his tile prior to firing during Murals class at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.

Students are paid a graduated stipend of $20-50 per week. Good attendance can bring bonuses of up to $200.

To make up four years of high school in 32 weeks “is not an easy program,” says Short. Attendance is important. Students who start at the Basic Education 1 level have a 68-percent chance of getting their GED. But once they get into the last GED class that success rate rises to 96%.

For those who make it through there is a support staff of counselors and teachers who develop a plan of action and help kids set goals. If they want to go to work they have programs to help them get connected. If they want to continue schooling, they help with school applications and financial aid. Las Artes will assist students for up to two years after graduation.

“It’s not like we are aiming to produce artists every other month," says Short. "It’s to teach them the soft skills that it takes to be successful. They are not artists. Some come here not knowing how to draw so they have to learn how to trace or they learn another skill and eventually they will find something that is a part of what is done here."

"Its not about the art it’s about the discipline," she said. "Because of the discipline we produce beautiful art."

Education Coordinator Patty Short and xxx help Damariz Avila, 20, during computer class at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.

Sebastian Saenz, 17, solves an equation during math class at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.

Sebastian Saenz, 17, wants to be a mechanic. He said it will take some time to decide his direction. He will likely head to Pima Community College or a trade school. He read at a fifth-grade level when came to Las Artes. He now reads at an 11th-grade level.

This multi-tile sun project by Yanna Ruvalcaba and Keiona Jordin Timberlake awaits firing during the Murals class at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.

Students work on individual tile projects with art instructor Darryl Lewis during Murals class at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.

Damariz Avila, 20, center, laughs with Sebastian Saenz, 17, and Yanna Ruvalcaba during Murals class lab at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.

Education Coordinator Patty Short helps out Gerard Acuna-Schultz during computer class at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.

Angel Heredia and Gerard Acuna-Schultz watch as Gina Barehand gets a lesson in cleaning a sprayer from art assistant Darryl Lewis during the murals class at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.

Gina Barehand, was a sophomore when she started at Las Artes. She worked at Macys, Walmart and a movie theatre. Her goal is to get the GED. She wants to get her foot in the door and see what college is like and become a nurse practitioner.

Angel Heredia, sometimes prefers to work alone on his individual tile project during Murals class at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.

Angel Heredia, 17, comes from a family of mechanics. He likes everything about cars. Angel has an older brother who tested into the school at a lower level and convinced Angel to give the school a try. He likes to be alone and was not fond of the chaos of a larger high school. "There's no drama here," he says. "Everyone here is friendly and gets along."

Student Gina Barehand participates in a mock interview with Kerry Johnson from Pima County Youth One-Stop at Las Artes Arts & Education Center. Johnson, from does mock interviews with Las Artes students to prepare them to enter the workforce and help set up work experience interships. Johnson runs through a set of questions, casually, to give the students a sense of a formal interview. They practice preparing the resume, being on time and bringing everything. They work on handshakes, articulation for the interview and go through the interview questions. "We then do a 10 min feedback session to try and improve their fundamental interview skills and their self confidence." says Johnson. 

Student Gina Barehand participates in a mock interview with Kerry Johnson from Pima County Youth One-Stop at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson, AZ on October 16, 2018. "The kids get to be interviewed by a stranger which makes it a little more real," Johnson said.

Former students have left their mark in the Murals lab at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.

Students Jojo Ali, 20, left and Gerard Acuna-Schultz, work during a math class at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.

Gerard, 19, was a wrestler at Tucson High School through his junior year before he was sidelined with an injury. He tried Project More, then started at Las Artes. He wants to be a doctor.

Students plot graphs during math class at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.

Keiona Jordin Timberlake momentarily slips away during a math class at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson. Students spend the morning in math, science and computer classes and afternoons in murals class.

Discipline and inspiration are reflected in the postings in front of the math class at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.

Gerard Acuna-Schultz gets a pat on the shoulder from Education Coordinator Patty Short as they make arrangements for him to take his next GED section test at Las Artes Arts & Education Center in Tucson.