Education by design

Tuesday, April 6, 2004

The Associated Press

MIAMI - At a small public high school near downtown Miami, students balance algebra and literature with hemlines and A-frames, allowing future fashion designers and architects to start focusing on prospective careers while still in their teens.

Students at the Design and Architecture Senior High School, or DASH, can enroll in programs that include architecture, fashion design, Web design and entertainment technology.

"These are very industry specific fields," principal Stacey Mancuso says. "But academics is an essential component." The combination of classes makes for a rigorous and extended schedule, with some of the 462 students traveling from as far away as 20 miles. Students take eight classes a day instead of the six regular high schools require; they graduate with 32 credits instead of the 24 required by the state.

"It's a lot of work but it's worth it," Gabriella Gonzalez, a 17-year-old senior in the fashion program, says.

Gonzalez scans photos of her recent project, an outfit with a ruffled hat and tutulike skirt made entirely with brown paper grocery bags and glue. She hopes her creative sense of style will get her into Academy of Arts in San Francisco, Fashion Institute of Technology in New York or Parsons School of Design in New York.

DASH has helped her to explore her talent, because it's "a more mature and understanding environment. I know that here, I'm never going to be looked down upon for being creative," says Gonzalez, who has pink strands running through her two blond braids. "No one is ever going to tell me that I can't present myself in a certain way." The school already has produced one celebrity senior.

Youngest designer at Fashion Week

Esteban Cortazar, 19, is the youngest designer ever to show a collection at Fashion Week in New York. Supermodel Cindy Crawford came out of retirement to walk his designs down the runway in September.

The Colombia native balances his regular classes at DASH between jetting to Los Angeles for a show or to Chicago to a TV appearance. He graduates in June. "When I'm here, I'm just like any other student," he says.

But like Cortazar, every student must be extraordinary. Students must audition to be accepted. There were 538 applicants for 110 spots last year, Mancuso says.

Under Florida's grading system, the school has been an "A" school for the past three years; the school's mean scores for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test are far above the district and the state.

DASH has a 33-member advisory board, made up of leaders in the world of design, art, architecture and entertainment, who act as liaisons to the professional community and serve as mentors.

"I just love my interaction with the students more than anything," architect and board member Marina Khoury says. "I love the mentor role. I lacked that a bit when I was young, and I realize the value of it. It's essential." Khoury taught architecture classes at DASH for six years until travel with her job in urban planning made full-time teaching impossible. DASH students regularly intern where Khoury works, as well as at more than a dozen other companies where students work alongside professionals.

More than 90 percent of DASH students go on to four-year colleges, and last year's graduates were offered $5.2 million in scholarships, Mancuso says.

But before this year's graduation, there's the end-of-the-year fashion show in May.

It is a showcase for the school's collective talent. The graphic design students design the posters and invitations, the architecture students often build the stage, the fashion students create the designs and the entertainment technology students film it all.

This year, the school will hold the show during Fashion Week of the Americas on Miami Beach. Students will show their creations alongside designers from Latin America, the Caribbean, the United States and Europe.

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