PHOTO: Letecia Miller with student work in her graphic design classroom

By Letecia Miller

When I came to Gardena High School to teach graphic design, I came from the industry — the industry I wanted to share with my students. Like many of them, I came from an “economically disadvantaged” area of Southern California — South LA, just a few miles from Gardena. My mom raised five of us on her own, and taught us all determination and drive.

So I graduated from high school and started as an apprentice at R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company, where we printed magazines like People, Time and Newsweek. Eventually I became a full-fledged press operator; then Donnelly paid for college graphic design courses where I expanded my skill set. When I got to Gardena, I was ready to pass those skills on to kids like me.

But we had a long way to go. For starters, most design shops use Macs. At Gardena, we had outdated PCs. Here we are, preparing young people for careers in graphic design without the most current, most common tools they would find in actual workplaces. So the first thing to do was to get only Macs.

At a school where 93 percent of students are from low-income families, there’s not a lot of money for changes like that. So, like so many CTE teachers, I became more than “just” a teacher: I became a grant writer. The school won a Perkins Grant for career and technical education— from the Department of Education— and we bought those computers.

I also had my eye on the school’s abandoned print shop, a giant, mostly empty space where I could just picture a graphic design studio for the kids. For 10 years, I kept my eye on that space. Every time the school got a new principal, I’d ask again. Can I use this for graphic design? The answer was always no.

Then in 2016, we got a CTE Incentive Grant that covers the cost of actually changing facilities for CTE programming — and I finally got to convert the print shop into the graphic design studio it is today.

Investing in our kids

It was a lot of work. I sneaked in at night to take measurements for furniture and equipment. I figured out the electrical system, the networking, cabinetry, even what kind of paint to use on the floor, pricing out what we’d need and connecting with vendors. When we finally got an architect on the job, I kept going — ordering printers, paper, toner, ink and software. There’s a big glue gun for banner edges, rolls of vinyl and a dye sublimation printer to use on polyester T-shirts.

The effort was totally worth it.

My students are learning. They are engaged. “Ms. Miller, can we do this?” they’ll ask. “Can we do that?” I listen to them and create a curriculum based on what they want. If they want to make stickers, we do it. If they want to make zines (those little graphic booklets like comic books), we do that.

One year, my students created logos for the Black Student Achievement Plan — a project my union, United Teachers Los Angeles, helped establish. This year, they made public service announcement posters, choosing the topics they’d illustrate. I was blown away. Their powerful, professional designs were about consent, suicide, mental illness and sexual abuse. I love that this studio gives them an opportunity to express themselves. And they are definitely learning some skills.

I had one student walk into a print shop with a quinceañera invitation she’d designed for her cousin’s 15th birthday, and the print shop owner asked her who had designed it. When she told him she’d done it herself, he offered her a job at his shop.

That’s why I’m here.

Every one of my students has the opportunity to graduate from my class with three certifications from Adobe — a respected credential that will open doors to good jobs. And Gardena has other CTE programs, including Esports, engineering and robotics, medical services, video production and a global business magnet. There are so many choices; but even if students don’t wind up in the career field they’ve studied, their skills are still invaluable — life skills like critical thinking and trouble shooting. They learn about deadlines and follow-through. They learn teamwork. They learn to fail, and to try again.

And they learn confidence: Five weeks into the semester, they’re sometimes feeling discouraged, so I have them reflect on all they’ve learned so far. You can feel the energy in the room as their little chests swell up with pride.

Perseverance and a pathway for everyone

Not every student is going on to college. CTE gives students other pathways to success, pathways that make more sense to them.

The students at Gardena are 99 percent “minority,” according to U.S. News and World Report rankings; many of them come from entrepreneurial immigrant families. Kids seek things that their parents talk about, and these parents are talking about their businesses. Kids are asking themselves, “What can I do to start my own business?” I try to pay attention to who they are, and how we can transfer that to the classroom, jobs or college.

It’s not always easy. I have 16- and 17-year-old students who don’t know their times tables and don’t see the point in learning them. They’ve been passed over and were expected to fail. In my classroom, they have new opportunities. They learn multiplication so they can draw up a plan for a poster or booklet. I tell them there’s no shame in needing to learn: I don’t care how you come in here, what I want is for you to leave here with something useful. Something more.

My mother taught us all to be hardworking and dedicated to what we believe in. I get my drive from her, and I want to pass that on to my kids — my students. Because I was one of them.

Letecia Miller has been teaching at Gardena High School since 2004. She is chair of the UTLA CTE Committee, where she is working to win pay equity for CTE teachers. This story first appeared on AFT Voices.