Technically, Corky Dunn is an art teacher. But she thinks of herself as a "mind farmer."
In her beginning art classes at Temple City High School, Dunn instructs her students in the use of 27 different media. Learning to weld bronze or model papier-mache, Dunn believes, is a way to learn to think. "If we need tools, we make them," she said of her students. "I want them to know they can do things with their own hands."
Earlier this year Dunn, 46, was one of 10 finalists for the Music Center's sixth annual Bravo awards. According to a spokesman for the Music Center's education department, the awards recognize outstanding achievement in keeping the arts alive in local schools.
Dunn and the other educators were chosen from among 134 nominees from five counties. The winners were Herb Holland, who teaches drama and English at Audubon Junior High School in Los Angeles, and Shanon Fitzpatrick, who teaches fourth grade at Morse Elementary School in Placentia.
At a time when the arts are beleaguered in the schools, Dunn is a passionate defender of their place in the curriculum. She is horrified that some people think of art or the performing arts, which she also teaches, as an adjunct to education, an extra that can be dropped when money is tight.
"Art is a basic," said Dunn, who has taught at Temple City High for 23 years. "We're not on the fringe. We're in the center of everything."
Dunn's view is evidently shared by the Temple City Unified School District. "The Board of Education and the administration have always been supportive," Dunn said. Students at Temple City High School can still study individual musical instruments, join the choir or sign up for a dance class, courses no longer offered in many public schools.
According to Miguel Muto, consultant for the visual and performing arts in the California Department of Education, art was in decline in the schools for almost a decade until 1985-86, when about 630,000 high school students were enrolled in visual arts programs, a modest gain of 9,000 over the previous year.
Figures for 1986-87 are not available, Muto said, but arts enrollment may have been bolstered by the state's requirement, in effect since 1986, that high school graduates must take a course in either the visual or performing arts or a foreign language.
Muto also noted that in 1976 the state had 400 art and music administrators at the school district level. That number has shrunk to fewer than 60.
One of Corky Dunn's most remarkable abilities, colleagues say, is a gift for reaching students who have not flourished in the schools. Dan Mooney, Temple City's assistant principal, noted that Dunn often elicits startlingly good work from students who have been chronic truants or troublemakers.
"She has this Pied Piper ability to attract those kids who are marching to the tune of a different drum," Mooney said, "and once she gets hold of them, she's inspirational."
In Mooney's view, a key to Dunn's success as an educator is her high expectation for all students, whatever their test scores.
Film, which students can take for three years, is one of Dunn's most popular courses. Now a mentor teacher in video technology for the school district, Dunn knew little about video or film making until a student came to her eight years ago and said: "I want to be in your art class, but I want to make films."
"I said: 'I've never made a film, but we'll try,' " Dunn recalled.
"We started out with one Super-8 camera and one light bulb," she said. Since then, she and her students have built a Spartan but functional production studio, complete with professional editing equipment. Students spend hour after hour there as they put together such projects as the school's annual video yearbook. Recent student creations include a documentary on soaring called "Dreams" and a fictional short entitled "Boy Scout Zombie From Hell."
Students' work is strictly their own. "I'm a facilitator," Dunn said. "I set the scene, but they have to be the play."
Early on, Dunn's young artists wanted a more professional identity for themselves. They formed a student film and video production company called DragonFlicks Ltd. that has persisted on campus. Like many of her students, Dunn is an admirer of dragons, which she described as "grand and noble things."
Students must get satisfactory grades to join DragonFlicks, which is the name they put on their films. The group also provides technical services throughout the district, including doing the lighting, sound and filming for various school performances. Members, who are paid for some jobs, have DragonFlicks business cards and green-and-gold jackets, just as campus athletes do.