Nicky Melendez didn’t know many students when she started her freshman year at Forsyth Central High School, which was one reason she joined the Central Film Academy.
Through the program, she began to learn the basics of filming and editing, but most importantly, she met a group of students she can now call family.
“That first year, we really got to bond and make a connection,” Melendez said.
Now a sophomore, she and her peers have moved on to creating short films, shooting scenes on and off campus for their joint classes. Although the work can be stressful at times, Melendez said “it’s a good kind of stress making these movies with my friends.”
Principal Dr. Josh Lowe said these types of invaluable connections are exactly why school leadership wanted to kickstart the program. He believes it is important that students at Central have somewhere on campus where they feel they belong.
“We want to make sure our kids are connected and plugged into something at school that they’re passionate about,” Lowe said.
Seeing the success of the program since they first created it three years ago, school leadership decided to open the academy to out-of-district students beginning next school year, meaning any rising 9th-grade student from across Forsyth County can apply for the program.
The program was designed similarly to the school’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, Academy and the recently launched Humanities Academy, both of which are also open to out-of-district students.
Lowe and his team described each of these academies as a “school within a school.” In each, students work as a cohort through all four years of school in cross-curricular courses that focus on their passions and interests while still meeting English, math, science and other requirements.
He and his team said these programs have a way of “making a large school feel small.”
“It might be cliche …. but it’s really the truth of the point,” Assistant Principal Jonathan Schreier said. “The fact that they’re learning something is awesome to begin with. They’re learning this real-life skill, but at the same time, making sure that they’re connected to other students and they’re learning to collaborate with those students. I mean, that’s the real underlying point behind these academies.”
Lowe said school leadership specifically created the Film Academy four years ago to help students form these connections while also preparing them for a career that is increasingly growing in demand in Georgia’s booming film industry.
Program Coordinator Dan Grass said students learn all the skills, both in front of and behind the camera, that will help them prepare for a career in film within the four-year program. Even as second-year students, they begin to use those skills and that bond they have with each other to create quality work.
“They understand each other. They know each other. They’re friends with each other, so they work more effectively on productions and projects,” said Jason Hanline, A/V Tech and Film teacher.
Hanline, along with other Film Academy instructors, are also trained by the Georgia Film Academy to ensure that students are learning the exact skills they will need going into the industry.
The students in the program completed their first feature film last year, which they submitted to the Atlanta Film Festival. The 30-minute film was a collaborative effort between their Advanced Film class and their Advanced Acting class, with students working together on two subjects to create one product.
The film was written, produced, shot, acted and edited entirely by students at Forsyth Central.
“I just can’t tell you how proud I am,” Hanline said.
Next, Hanline plans to ask students to create a 1.5- to 2-hour film over the course of a school year. While that is an ambitious assignment, Hanline wants the academy to create content “like a bonafide professional studio.”
Grass and Hanline said their goal over time is to build a reputation for the program to a point where Georgia universities go to Forsyth Central because they want the kids for their film programs, or they want studios to eventually come to the school when looking to hire someone.
Many of the current students shared they have already started receiving more opportunities from the experience and connections they have made within the program.
One of the unique aspects of the program that Grass and Hanline have noticed is that students in different grades interact and help each other on projects. For example, upperclassmen often invite freshmen or sophomore students to act in productions they are working on for class.
“The CFA program is such a close-knit family,” Melendez said. “I’m always hanging out with juniors and the freshman class.”
Hanline said with these relationships, a mentorship and leadership aspect of the program has formed, with upperclassmen teaching younger students what they have learned. As they continue to learn more and more, the program continues to grow each year.
“Suddenly, my freshman class this year is starting to outpace what they’ve done the previous year and before that because they are getting the benefit of all this knowledge from the upperclassmen who are helping them out as well,” Hanline said.
These relationships continue after high school, too. A junior in the program now, Ian Aponte said alumni of the school often reach out with opportunities for him to act in or help produce projects they are working on outside of school.
He currently works as a film intern as a high school student.
“We get to learn [all of this] at such a young age, and it’s really cool,” Aponte said.
Grass said the academy held its first film expo last year, and more than 200 people came to see the students’ work. Eventually, he hopes to make the expos a community event where families from all over the county can come out and enjoy student-made films.
“When the student films come out, I think people will be really impressed with what they are producing,” Grass said.
For more information on the Central Film Academy, visit the school’s website at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us/fchs.