A student band performs for the crowd of parents and friends at this year's final art exhibition, where students display their film, design, fine art, or web audio projects. It's a scene not commonly found in a high school setting, but at Freestyle, Mountain View's magnet high school for communication arts and technology, it's nothing new.
Nestled between Alta Vista and Mountain View high schools, Freestyle Academy is a pocket of alternative education within the Mountain View Los Altos High School District. The school offers half-day programs for juniors and seniors in conjunction with both high schools. Students are admitted through a lottery system, and once selected, can focus on writing, technology, communication and visual arts in either morning or afternoon sessions.
"The cool thing about it is all the classes are interdisciplinary," said Julia Pressman, a Freestyle senior. "What we learn in English, we're also learning in design, and we're also applying those concepts in web or film."
Instruction is project-based, with students working on four projects each year, said senior Karina Muranaga.
Muranaga, who plans to major in photography at New York University in the fall, has always been interested in art, but says Freestyle helped her find her artistic direction.
"I knew I wanted to do it as a profession, but I didn't know in what capacity," Muranaga said.
She learned about Freestyle through friends and decided to try it.
"I would come to exhibitions and it was really interesting," she said.
For her senior project, Muranaga took on a heavy subject: genocide. She says that her interest in human rights carries over to most of her projects. For this exhibition, she combined audio and visual mediums to explore her subject.
"The concept (for this project) is the different value we give to people's lives and how some people's deaths get more attention than others," Muranaga said.
The project incorporates sand animation — a medium recently made popular by Ukraine's Got Talent winner Kseniya Simonova — that Muranaga uses to depict images based on Mexican loteria cards. Each card represents a different type of person, from President Obama to a child soldier. A colorful, glowing heart that she made beats at a different rate as each new person appears in the sand.
"It's to notice how ridiculous it is that if they were to die one person would be considered more important than another," Muranaga said. "Here they all look similar, they're all on the same plane, they're all on the same level."
Taking on these complex concepts is part of what design teacher Leslie Parkinson encourages in her students.
"A lot of times I encourage them to find something that has an extreme, either a joyful experience or a sad experience that they can really tap into," Parkinson said.
Despite the cliche, she says the "tortured artist thing really does work."
The small class sizes, individual attention and personal nature of the projects create a community atmosphere at Freestyle that is felt by teachers, students and parents. Students openly joke with their instructors, who reciprocate the repartee.
"You have some kids bring you some pretty heavy stuff, and that creates a pretty intimate bond," Parkinson said. "It ends up forging trust."
Senior Sena Absar, who is interested in pursuing media and communications, says the sense of community at Freestyle is integral to the learning process.
"We have to work with other people at this school," Absar said. "You get this common ground. You really create these great friendships which are only created over the course of a year or two but which are stronger than those that you've had since preschool."
Even though Absar says she does not want to be an "artist," she feels that a Freestyle education is equally valuable.
"Our generation is definitely the most technological so far," Absar said. "To even be a doctor, it's a good thing to know all these different techniques."
Parkinson also acknowledges the benefit of Freestyle's approach for those not pursuing art professionally.
"Every other job is only improved by going about it in a creative and innovative way," she said. "That involves a mind that is able to make those leaps, that's not afraid to make those leaps."
It is this creativity and innovation that seems to flood the Freestyle campus at this year's final exhibition. Student creations proudly stand on display in the school's classrooms for parents and peers to appreciate. There are Web sites, photos, collages, paintings, films, sculptures, music. There are projects that explore social issues, environmental concerns, and the most personal of thoughts. Parkinson says she's blown away.
"They go places that they never even dreamt of going," she said. "And all of a sudden they realize that they've created something really spectacular."
Parkinson, parents and students acknowledge the personal growth seen in students throughout their two-year journey at Freestyle. Absar says she has not only learned about art and technology, but about herself as an individual.
"You really get to figure out who you are as a human being," she said.