M. Terry / SFVS

(l-r) Media Arts Academy students Fernanda Zaragoza, Xiomara Santillan and Jocelyn Vega.

The plain looking 300-square foot converted classroom that sits almost midway into the campus of Sun Valley High School is only plain on the outside. And the classroom conversion was more than a bunch of new desks and fresh coats of paint.

It goes by the name of “Studio 24” and it is a state-of-the-art facility where students interested in careers in the film and video industry can start to learn directing, cinematography, editing and other post production skills that could not only lead to entrance in college and film schools — but jobs.

That is the belief and brainchild of instructor Jamal Speakes, Sr., who came to Sun Valley High from Dorsey High in Los Angeles four years ago to develop the school’s Media Arts Academy and oversee a career technical education program (CTE) for the students here. It rivals other kinds of CTE programs throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District that offer paths into careers like robotics, building and construction trades, engineering and business.

The Media Arts Academy program is for three years and has three levels — beginner, intermediate and advanced. But it is very hands-on for the students, who work in groups. Beginning students are expected to make two silent films in the first year. Intermediate students create two narrative films for the year. Advanced students create a narrative, a documentary and a Public Service Announcement.

And the students here, at all levels, do everything: the acting (if necessary), directing, editing and post production.

Speakes, a native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Norfolk State University with a degree in English and a minor in theatre — “I’m very proud of coming from a HBCU” — said he was asked to come to Sun Valley High by former principal Clara Herran (now at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar).

Herran who wanted him to build the media program here “because the school didn’t really have anything to ‘sell’ to the community,” said Speakes, adding the school is looking at ways to “rebrand” itself. “So I came over, and we went from nothing to something because I do believe in miracles. I am a dreamer.”

Studio 24 took nine months to construct and was paid for by funds Speakes helped raise from government grants and private donations. It opened in April this year.

His dream for Sun Valley High — whose student base is 95 percent Latino — is to be a content-creation training facility for high school students in the Northeast Valley.

Speakes wants to create a pool of potential directors and other behind-the-scenes industry types to help fill the gaping holes in Hollywood and other places where Latino inclusion is severely limited. In fact, the National Hispanic Media Coalition (and National Latino Media Council) — in announcing a boycott of Paramount Pictures in August — pointed to a study published by USC this year that said fewer than 7 percent of speaking characters in the top 100 films over an 11-year period spanning from 2007 to 2017 were Latino, according to the USC report published last month. That’s up from fewer than 3 percent the year before. 

“Being five minutes from Hollywood, we say there’s no reason why the Latino culture should be underrepresented in television and film, and different kinds of content,” Speakes said.

Current principal Tadeo Climaco, who came to Sun Valley from Contreras High in Los Angeles in July, marvels at the connection the program is making and has made with students.

“I was not aware of [the academy] until I came on campus,” Climaco said. “But I have seen the students very committed to the work they are doing. It is something they enjoy.

“In high school, you have students who might not be initially inclined to be in a ‘typical’ classroom setting. But [Speakes’] program…is something that peaks their interest. And I have seen students become competitive, and like building a lot of skills.”

Particularly with the kind of preparation Speakes and the academy can now provide. Studio 24 includes up-to-date editing equipment and software, industry standard cameras, and a post-production machine known as an Automated Dialog Replacement (which can correct and synchronize the sound you see and hear being spoken by the actors, both on audio and film).

Intermediate and advance students can earn college credit that’s transferable in the Cal State University system. Film schools may not necessarily accept the program as a college credit, but will consider it as experience when reviewing applications.

Ultimately, Speakes hopes trained students could go directly into jobs from what they learn at Sun Valley.

“When I have different [film school] mentors come to speak to classes, a comment they make all the time is ‘you guys have more than we do,’” Speakes said. “So [when the students] graduate from high school, this equipment will not be new to them. They’ll be able to shoot a film, edit a film, and put the film up on the YouTube Channel. They can do it all.

“We have an avenue to create the content, produce the content, and show the content.”

First Graduating Class

Fernanda Zaragoza, Xiomara Santillan and Jocelyn Vega — all seniors — are part of the program’s first graduating class this spring.

“All three girls are very good students,” Speakes said. “I have seen them go from being shy and not wanting to speak to determining that ‘film is my voice.’ They have blossomed. I am expecting big things from them.”

All three students told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that the program sparked something inside of them and provided a window into career paths previously not considered.

Zaragoza, 17, an advanced student, had thought about becoming a pediatrician when she entered Sun Valley as a ninth grader. That is until “I discovered I’m actually good at telling stories.”

Now she wants to be a director, and is looking at film schools and universities like CSUN and USC that have specific majors in film.

“I would have never thought about this before I came [to Sun Valley],” Zaragoza said. “Film is what I want to do. Once I got into this, I saw how film is a completely different [way to tell stories] . There’s many things you can do — editing, lighting, audio. It’s like its own world.”

Vega also entered the program as a ninth grader and is an advanced student. Like Zaragoza, she wants to direct but is also interested in film editing, screenwriting, and acting. “I always had my eyes on the media industry. I always knew I wanted to do something in the industry because I liked creating stuff,” Vega said.

But, Vega, 17, admits she’s also had to learn assertiveness and management — skills that were developed in the program.

“There were a couple of times where I had a group that hardly did anything, so I was the one who had to do the work. I had to scream at them sometimes to get the work done,” Vega said.

Santillan, 18, is a bit of an anomaly. She didn’t enter the program until her junior year and is an intermediate student. But she became enamored with all aspects of the academy, and has been in a hurry to make up for lost time.

“I always liked recording myself — filming where I would go — and making up stories to entertain people,” she said. “I never thought I wanted to create movies and shows. But once I got here…it just opened up a different world, seeing how movies were made.”

So much so that Santillan wants to go right into film school.

“I don’t want to really waste time going to a university. I want to get straight into film…before that I was [interested] in journalism, and designing. I was still in the art part of what I wanted to do in my life; it’s just changed now to film.”

Speakes feels distinct pride in all the emergence of all three students. But Santillan’s drive and determination is an added plus.

“Xio was one of those kids who was done with school — what was the purpose,” the instructor said. “This was something that peaked her interest, something she wanted to do and found out she was good at it. And she’s hungry to learn. She wants to blaze a trail and win an Oscar as a Latina director.”

A Clear Vision

Studio 24 is one part of Speakes’ dream. He looks at an empty lot by the campus and imagines a studio that will enable students to have their own total movie-making facility instead having to always seek a location.

“It’s what I call Phase III — building what I call Clear Vision Studios,” he said. “Because for me my vision is clear and I know exactly what I want.”

The vision is a 22,000-

square foot building with a sound stage, post production capability, creative classrooms, grip and electric, hair and makeup.

“Everything where the kids can come right out of high school and go straight into the industry,” he said. “This is what career technical education is about, and why it is a big push in schools. Kids get viable technical and employable skills.”

Just as important: to enable students to be able to tell their stories, command their content, and control their narratives as the video and film industries continue their evolution, and as more opportunities to work become available.

“Right now this is a prime time because cable network is holding on by the threads,” Speakes said. “The only reason cable networks are still living is because of sports and news. Now, with the mediums like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, you don’t have to go to the big studios anymore to create your content. The next wave — there are so many channels and so many avenues for content, but what still stands the test of time is a great story.

“So it’s making kids understand the value of a great story. And a great story [is something] people will come to look and see, and figure out how a person put together that story. Whatever medium it’s on, it still stands the test of time that stories will last generations. It’s being able to teach these kids how to tell great stories, how to produce their great stories, and how to develop their great stories.”