KEARNEY — Before they’ve even earned their diploma, Kearney High School students are running their own graphic design business.
Effectively, that’s what the Bearcat Design program has become. The teen graphic designers meet with clients, take on projects and churn out high-quality work that can be seen all around the community.
Teacher Charlotte Kaeding says this program is just another example of how impressive young people are.
“You hear people say, ‘Kids these days…’ and I constantly am against that phrase,” Kaeding said. “The kids that I have impress me every single day with the stuff they do, how creative they are and how hard they work. It’s super important to them that what they put out is usable and exciting.
“Kids are pretty impressive,” she added. “You’ve just got to give them the chance.”
Kaeding has been giving students the chance to design for clients for seven years now.
That first year, the program was just one student in an independent study course.
Others at KHS had seen the quality of work students produced in the school’s graphic design classes and hoped that the students could use those skills for their programs. At the time though, Kaeding didn’t have time in her curriculum to include additional projects.
So, Bearcat Design became the time to create those pieces. What started out with one student getting assignments forwarded to her from Kaeding turned into a class of a dozen students — 15 this year — enrolled in a cataloged class.
It doesn’t take long to see the fruits of the students’ labor around the school. They’ve designed everything from the football team’s social media posts to theater posters to the program for the Nebraska State Bandmasters Association’s state competition.
“Some projects literally take a kid a day,” Kaeding said, but some take much longer. “We didn’t do NSBA this year, but that specific project takes a kid a whole term.”
KHS even has its own screen printing machine, so students can create a T-shirt from concept all the way to pressing ink onto fabric.
While getting high marks in class for a project is one thing, there’s a special kind of satisfaction that comes from seeing something you’ve created out in the world, according to Ella Waller.
So far, the senior said her favorite project has been creating KHS football graphics that posted to social media on Fridays before a game. In addition to the opportunity to test a variety of ideas, the graphics are viewed by a large audience.
“It’s a good feeling to hear people say, ‘Wow, the graphic was cool this week!’ or other things like it,” Waller explained. “I always feel appreciated doing it, and I’ve made the graphics for the past two years.”
She added she’ll miss the work after she graduates this year.
For many students, though, Bearcat Design isn’t the end of their graphic design careers.
Because three design classes are required before joining Bearcat Design, the students who fill seats in the class are upperclassmen. That turns the class into a springboard for other design pursuits after high school.
Kaeding said she has had several students go on to take design internships at places like The Buckle and many end up pursuing a degree in graphic design or a related field, like photography. Two students are currently at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
Even those who don’t pursue an artistic career still gain plenty of professional skills in Bearcat Design.
Along with churning out logos and T-shirt designs, students actively communicate with clients, who are both inside Kearney High and out in the community.
“We get a lot of compliments on their professionalism,” Kaeding said.
Bearcat designers put care into their emails with clients to make sure communication is clear and professional, the teacher explained. They also will take meetings with clients.
Still, students see a value in having some design experience, no matter what job they take in the future.
“I’m still not sure what I want to do, but graphic design is in my top picks,” said junior Jade Romero. “In many jobs, they will seek out people who do have a little background in design and that can help someone move up in their jobs if they are qualified.”
For others, Bearcat Design has cemented their future plans.
Senior Leah Glendenning plans to someday own her own screenprinting business.
She said she was “on a mission” to take every art class offered at KHS. Through that process, she ended up in graphic design and “fell in love” with the medium.
“This class is the only reason I have the career path that I really enjoy,” Glendenning said. “Without it I really don’t know where I would be in life.”
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