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Colleen Yaremko | Graphic Design Teacher | Northeast High School

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Computers have drastically changed the graphic design industry, but that hasn’t stopped Colleen Yaremko from teaching the trade she loves.

Starting as an entry-level paste-up artist, Yaremko, who worked in the graphics industry for 16 years, said that she “learned the old-school way of design, pre-computers.”

Then the industry went digital, she said, and many people who refused to adapt lost their jobs. But not Yaremko.

“I was intrigued. I purchased my own computer and taught myself the graphics software.”

It was that self-training that helped Yaremko, a 1978 graduate of the Studio School of Art & Design, open two design businesses and teach her employees to advance in the graphic design field.

Operating her first business from 1984 to 1989, she produced illustrations and camera-ready artwork for science journals. In the early 1990s, she ran a second enterprise, producing graphics for a diverse clientele in the music industry, and for Subaru and QVC.

Yaremko said her desire to become a teacher took over after watching her employees take what they learned from working for her and secure other jobs.

“I enjoyed seeing them move on to bigger and better opportunities,” she said.

Yaremko closed her second business in 1994 and began teaching at Swenson Arts & Technology High School that same year. In 1996 she moved to Germantown High School, where she started a career and technical education program in graphic design. Yaremko left in 2001 for Northeast High School, where she became a small learning community coordinator.

Today, Yaremko, 57, is the program coordinator for the Northeast Communications Technology CTE program, a state-approved CTE career cluster where students train in computer technology, graphic communications, graphic design, cinematography, web and multimedia design, film and video, and game and interactive media design.

As the coordinator, Yaremko works to make the program more cohesive. She said that she’s interested in making all of the students in her classes graphic designers, but knows that’s not realistic.

“I’m happy to share what I know from my trade experience, train them on the equipment and software, help them develop their creativity and related ethical sensibilities, and get them to think more about planning next steps and that learning is lifelong,” she said.

What counts most in the graphic design field, Yaremko said, is portfolio work.

“Graphic design is a highly competitive field. Now a college degree or trade school education is required, but that’s just to send in the résumé,” she said.

In her class, students work on projects that integrate multiple facets of graphic design. For example, if the overall goal is for students to design a two-color logo using Adobe Illustrator and complementary typography, they need to learn about logos, the necessary software, color theory, and typography.

“Because CTE is competency-based, students must master each step before they can move on to the next. Thus you’ll find students at many different stages in a given class, but all moving towards the logo design expectation.”

Yaremko said that this classroom arrangement sometimes presents challenges.

Most CTE teachers want to train students like they would if they were in the workplace, Yaremko explained, but teacher evaluations are developed with the non-CTE teacher in mind.

“We are expected to teach like non-CTE teachers,” she said. “Evaluators want to see more ‘whole group instruction,’ and when they walk into a CTE room and every student is doing something different, it looks disorganized to them even though we are modeling differentiated instruction.”

Teaching lessons about copyright and ethics is important to Yaremko. In her class, students discuss how a reputation for infringement can destroy a career.

“With the Internet and computers, students seem to think that there’s nothing wrong with copying directly from a webpage or each other. I create scenarios to try to get them to put the shoe on the other foot,” she explained.

Yaremko’s experience as an educator has made her conscious of the trends in CTE.

“What I found back then was that vocational education was mostly being used as a dumping ground for low-performing, underperforming, special education, and misbehaving students – those considered undesirable by other teachers and schools,” she said.

Now she sees that things are changing.

“We’ve all read about so many college grads that are in great debt and can’t find jobs, mostly because they pursued degrees where the job market is oversaturated or degrees that aren’t in high-demand occupations,” she said.

“I know that some are taking a second look at CTE, especially since this ‘everyone will go to college’ thing is going to be a big bust with degrees galore, but no jobs.”

Now that CTE programs in neighborhood high schools can recruit citywide, Northeast is seeing a much more interested group of students who want to pursue the trades, she said.

“When I’m in the classroom, I don’t want the students to just think of me as teacher, I want them to think of me as someone who’s been there, done that. And I’m sharing that professional experience with them so they can be better for it. I think they get it.”

Fabiola Cineas is a freelance journalist and a Notebook contributor.