Northwestern students praise ‘legendary’ teacher Andre Lee
By Maristela Romero
Northwestern High School’s Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) program boasts a host of alums that have found success in the entertainment, communications and media industries. Its well-funded budget and endless support from Northwestern’s administration have allowed students in the competitive program to flourish.
Most of all, students credit Andre Lee, the school’s television production teacher, for creating an environment in which they have the freedom to explore visual storytelling and other avenues of creativity.
Lee has been teaching in the VPA program since it began in 2001. As a student, he interned for urban radio station 102.3 FM and graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in radio, television and film. Lee worked as a technician for the Interactive Television Program at the Bonnie F. Johns Educational Media Center prior to being recruited by then principal William Ritter to become the television production teacher for Northwestern.
“A lot of kids have dreams and aspirations, but you always try to encourage them … and every kid marches to his or her beat of the drum,” Lee said in an interview. “And what I try to do is to create an environment that’s conducive to learning, and be flexible so the kids can basically develop in their own special way.”
Lee stressed that Northwestern’s leadership has given strong support to the program over time. He noted that the school constructed a television studio and ensures that equipment is up to date. And in the early 2000s, the program purchased camera equipment and computer editing software that had just hit the market.
Matt Orchowski, a 2003 alum, was one of the first students to participate in the VPA program. He is now the creative director of content for a media company.
“We didn’t have phones or cameras just in our pockets at all times, so to have access to a camera was a huge deal,” he said.
Orchowski and his fellow classmates worked on film projects that required them to write scripts, find actors and organize entire productions after school and on weekends.
“YouTube didn’t come out until I was in college, so there really wasn’t a place for these things to exist,” Orchowski said. “You make a video, and it ends up on a VHS tape. … [Lee] was so great at showcasing your work and showing it to the classes.”
Lee gives superlatives to his students, calling them high school “legends” and “greats,” to give recognition to their achievements within and beyond the VPA program.
“He talks so much about his legendary students, but I think the unsung hero there is definitely [Lee,] himself. He’s reached legendary status as a teacher. I hope he recognizes that,” Orchowski noted.
Lee sees graduating seniors Alexa Figueroa and Gabriela Duran-Ramirez as potential rising stars in the field of media production.
Through the VPA program, Figueroa has competed in four film festivals and developed a specialty in creating documentaries focused on social issues such as gun violence, kidnapping and immigration.
She participated in the Princeton Summer Journalism Program last year and credits Lee for giving her broad exposure to collaborative aspects of broadcast journalism. Prior to joining the VPA program, Figueroa had participated in Hyattsville Middle School’s performing arts program.
“I was so used to doing things on my own,” she said. “I didn’t know that there are more people who share my interests.”
Figueroa hopes to represent Hispanic voices as a broadcast journalist.
For Duran-Ramirez, the VPA program served as a platform for her to explore her storytelling abilities.
“I’m not really that good of a writer, so [VPA] has really helped me tell stories and put it into visuals,” she said. The 17-year-old said she appreciated Lee’s critiques of her projects, which prompted her to improve her skills.
“When I succeed out there, he’ll be the one person I’ll be thanking,” she said.
Maristela Romero is an intern with the Hyattsville Life & Times.