When Austin Wright isn't running four shows for the local TV station or filming for WTAE (Pittsburgh's ABC affiliate), he's in classes at Mt. Lebanon High School. Recently, he's been working on Every 15 Minutes, a film about the deadly consequences of drunk driving, to be aired shortly before his high school prom. And earlier this spring, his documentary video on creative ways to recycle, Stop Waiting for the World to Change, won the Narrative Prize in the Creating Awareness and Understanding of Our Surrounding Environment Challenge High School Film Festival—an honor accompanied by $300 for him and $1,500 for his school.
Mt. Lebanon, which last fall earned a silver medal in the America's Best High Schools rankings, entered eight student-directed short films in the C.A.U.S.E. film festival this year. Through its thriving television program, the school is giving students a chance to start pursuing their dreams. "I always loved movies, but I never realized I had the power to actually make one," says senior Katie Zytka, who also entered a film in the competition. "I thought I had to be a big-time Hollywood person. I didn't think I could do it at a young age. And then...I got inspired."
Robert Rosen, the television teacher at Mt. Lebanon, was one of the organizers of the C.A.U.S.E. festival, which showcases around 50 short films by "green" filmmakers from Pittsburgh-area schools. Students have the chance to compete for $11,500 in cash prizes and to meet other aspiring filmmakers at a red-carpet event hosted by the Carnegie Science Center. The festival was started four years ago by the center's SciTech Initiative with the sponsorship of the Bayer Corp. "The hope is students will learn about what's going on and either take an active role as professionals or just as very well-informed citizens," says Linda Ortenzo, executive director of the initiative.
Energy quests. This year's top honor went to Hampton High School—another Best High Schools silver medalist—for an action-style film produced by seniors Ben Kepner, Dylan Morris, and Benjamin Swanson and freshman Andrew Benton, A Greener Cleaner Choice.
In their flick, a mysterious lady (played by Kepner's sister) sends three boys out on quests for the best source of alternative energy. Their journeys culminate in a war of words, each boy trying to prove that his source is the best. "I wanted to grab people's attention," explains Kepner.
But if the film festival had awarded prizes for highest level of participation, Mt. Lebanon easily would have taken first place with its eight entries. Rosen considers the competition a good motivator and encourages all his students to send in a video, even structuring some class projects to fit the guidelines for festival submission. From the looks of it, he's tapped into something that's exciting high school students about film; at a school of roughly 2,000, he has 229 students signed up for his courses next year.
The video program wasn't always so popular. It started in the 1970s when Ernest Babich, then working as a federal coordinator for the high school, decided it needed a video department. So he wrote to the government and managed to get a federal grant. "In those days, it must have been around $30,000 is all," Babich says. But it was a start. The next obstacle was that there was no one qualified to teach video. So Babich went back to school, got certified as an audiovisual specialist, and taught the courses himself.
Now, decades later, Rosen, who graduated from Mt. Lebanon in 1965, is at the helm. He's a big advocate, not just of the festival but of getting kids actively involved in the learning process. Rosen says that interactive video projects can have a very positive effect on students' self-presentation and communication skills. "This is where education is moving now," he says. "Instead of sitting in a chair and being talked to, you participate. You learn how to talk to people, how to present yourself to an audience, how to interview for a job, how to get what you want out of life."
Seniors Wright and Zytka have each taken eight classes with Rosen in high school—for those counting, that's one every semester. Zytka will attend Point Park University next year for digital cinema and the arts. Wright will be attending the University of Arizona next year for broadcasting.
Ernest Babich is now 80 years old and has watched the life of the department he created unfold. He still lives in Mt. Lebanon, and his granddaughter, Brittney, is a 10th grader at the school. "Every time I stop by the school, I stop up at the TV studio," says Babich. "And when I went back to see Les Misérables, the students were there filming it."