William Francis, a June graduate of Ballou High School, studied the drawings on the walls of the reception area at Catholic University's School of Architecture and shook his head. The prize-winning sketches of former students were of embellished monuments with graceful statues and classical columns.
"I'm definitely a modernist," Francis said.
Maybe so. This summer, Francis, who will enter Grambling State Unversity this fall, and six other District high school students are spending a month at the Catholic University campus exploring their design ideas in a summer program aimed at introducing teenagers to architecture as a career field.
The "introduction:" a graduate design course in the classroom of part-time professor Iris Miller.
Five years ago, Miller opened her summer landscape design class to students in Ballou's advanced math-science program; the next year she also invited students from Dunbar's pre-engineering program.
"The idea, in part, was to provide career training," said Miller. "But I also wanted to expose them to the planning process and to the issues involved in urban design."
Since then, 42 graduating seniors have completed the month-long seminar, for which they receive one undergraduate credit.
"These students are required to fulfill the same responsibilities as the graduate students," Miller said. Class members must attend two three-hour lectures a week and read texts covering the history of French landscape design. Their final project: to design a public space and present the plan to the class.
Miller was a high school teacher before getting her degree in architecture 14 years ago, which accounts for her confidence in bringing such young students into her class. "I knew they could do the work," she said.
While they are there, she tries to expose them to a range of design philosophies, but stresses the French influence because of the background of this city's planner, Pierre L'Enfant.
So much for modernist Francis.
Dunbar graduate Crystal Taylor, now a fifth-year engineering student at North Carolina A & T State University, said Miller's class continues to influence her. "I never paid attention to buildings before that class," she said. "Now I think about city planning and I notice design details."
But not all of Miller's students wind up studying architecture in college. Sonja Garland, for one, is now a junior in communications and sociology at American University. "I realized that summer I didn't want to go into engineering," she said. "But the course was interesting and great preparation for college."
Dunbar counselor Judith Robinson said Miller's summer program offers a valuable transition between high school and college academics. "Most of the students we send have completed all of our drafting courses. So the college class gives them an opportunity to achieve a higher level of skills," she said.
In the process, students also grow emotionally, Robinson said. "Being on a college campus gives them a sense of independence. Usually it's their first evening class and it's in a new neighborhood. They come back learning a lot about discipline."
This year the class attracted two girls and five boys, all of them black. Courses like Miller's are vital in helping to encourage minorities to enter architectural professions, said Jean Barber, special programs director for the American Institute of Architects. Only 6.4 percent of the institute's 53,500 members are minorities; only 1 percent are black, Barber said.
Bright young minorities are choosing other professions for economic reasons, Barber said. "The average salary for an architect with a combined 10 years of schooling and apprenticeship is $28,100. That's less than lawyers are making right out of law school."
Officials at Catholic, one of three architecture schools in the area, hope the summer program will spark more general interest in the field. At a reception for the program, Stanley Hallett, chairman of the architecture school, invited local high schools to become more involved with their program.
"We'd like to see students and teachers tour our studios and attend lectures on a regular basis. We'd like to be a resource for the city."