Ally Lewis ended up taking her favorite class completely by accident.

“I had listed several choices for alternate classes, like Greenhouse was one I listed,” the North Stafford High School junior said. “Then when I got my schedule and saw Graphics 1, I thought, ‘what is that?’ ”

But after attending the class for a couple days, Lewis loved it.

“I’m a very hands-on learner, I like to get into things and get my hands dirty,” she said. “I love to see the process from concept to finished product, an end result of all the work. That’s what makes this class perfect for me.”

Lewis, who is 17, started Graphics Imaging 1 at the beginning of this school year. Another of her blocks is used for Independent Study in Graphics.

“I’m not sure where I want to go to college yet, but I know I want to major in graphic imaging and minor in photography,” Lewis said. “Ultimately, I’d like to blend both into a career.”

The Graphic Imaging program at NSHS is one of Stafford County Public Schools’ oldest career and technical programs, one of a number of such programs offered throughout the district that allow students to earn industry-based certifications through national assessments or licensure exams.

“I graduated from the Graphics Imaging program when I was a student here,” said instructor Susan Caldwell, who attended NSHS in the ’70s. “It was pretty different then.”

Caldwell has worked in the printing industry ever since, learning every aspect of the business, from printing newspapers to developing car wraps, using state-of-the-art software and computers, printing presses, binding and cutting machines and all manner of equipment along the way.

When she learned 13 years ago the NSHS Graphic program may be shut down, Caldwell came back to revive it. “It’s just too valuable, I couldn’t let that happen,” she said, even though it meant a significant pay cut.

On April 6, the NSHS graphics imaging program was awarded $37,500 by the state, part of $600,000 in grants given to high schools and CTE centers throughout Virginia to upgrade equipment.

Caldwell said the money will be combined with grants from the Virginia Printing Foundation to purchase a programmable digitized garment color printing system and other machinery.

“I’m really excited about it,” Lewis said, explaining that the garment printer they have now will print onto only a certain kind of fabric using a particular ink, both of which must be special ordered. With the new machine, “We can buy any kind of shirt anywhere and print on it. I really want to print on a hoodie.”

Altogether, 41 students are enrolled in Graphics 1 and 2, including 10 students who travel to NSHS for the program from other district schools.

Students learn the business from estimating to invoicing and everything in between by creating banners, booklets, flyers and other printed material for Stafford County schools and government, and some community nonprofit groups. Classes create 5,000 coloring books every year, which are donated to area hospitals and other organizations.

Past graduates can come back and intern in the program to develop a portfolio and apply for scholarships. Caldwell is always on the lookout for internship opportunities at printing companies throughout the region.

Since Caldwell’s program administers Occupational Safety and Health Administration training, after completing Graphics 1, students receive an official Department of Labor card showing they are OSHA compliant.

After completing Graphics 2, students take an exam administered by the Graphic Arts Education and Research Foundation. Upon passing the test, students earn the PrintEd certification, qualifying them to apply for specialized positions within the printing industry, such as digital printing, bindery, graphic design and entry-level commercial printing.

The NSHS program is one of only two in Virginia that offer the certification.

“It’s so rewarding to see these students achieve something concrete, to leave high school with some idea of what they want to do with their life,” Caldwell said. “Some of them will go right into the industry, some of them will use the skills to pay their way through college—I encourage students to think outside the box on their path to a career.”

Matthew Houser, a NSHS senior who will take the PrintEd certification exam within the next few weeks, was one of eight finalists in a license plate design contest sponsored by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles and AAA aimed at distracted driving. Houser entered the contest last fall along with about 200 other Virginia students.

In March, Houser was notified his design had been selected as one of the eight best, and was awarded $300. An online vote determined the final winner, which was announced last week in Richmond. Although Houser didn’t get the top prize, he has a great portfolio piece and résumé bullet point.

Houser found out about the contest through his Graphics 2 class. “A few other students in the class also entered, but I was the only one to be a finalist,” he said.

He attributes much of the success of his design to concepts he learned in Graphics 1 and 2.

“What colors to use to make the design stand out, what images to use to communicate the message, spacing—it’s all graphic design,” Houser said.

After graduation Houser plans to earn a degree and pursue a career in a graphics-related field. “I really like using Illustrator and Photoshop,” he said. “I like the challenge of finding the best way to communicate the objectives of the client.”

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Emily Jennings: 540/735-1975 ejennings@freelancestar.com

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