Reporter's notebook: A good hair day

As I ascended the stairs to the Glendale High School cosmetology department on a recent afternoon, memories of past hair disasters slowed my step.

There was the chop job done at a cheap salon in a Midwestern shopping mall in the wake of a broken college romance. And the round hair brush that became glued to my head after a family friend turned it clockwise and then counter-clockwise mid-styling session (the brush, along with significant portions of hair, had to be cut out).

And so subjecting my locks to a 16-year-old in training seemed to have all the makings of Hair Disaster 2011. The electrifying do of the receptionist didn’t help — fuchsia pink is cool for an artistic student, but less so for a 20-something professional.

Helena Seltzer tried to put my fears at rest. The 1940 Hoover High School graduate has had her hair cut and colored at the Glendale High School cosmetology department for 45 years.

“I trust the instructors,” Seltzer said as we sat side by side in the waiting area. “In fact, I think that I quite often have had better results here than out in the open market.”

As it turned out, the fate of my hair rested not in the hands of a driver’s-license-less teenager, but with Liliya Stepanyan, a 25-year-old Glendale High School alum.

She started with the cosmetology department after emigrating from Armenia a decade ago. At the time of her graduation in 2005, she was a just a few hundred hours short of the 1,600 required to sit for the California State Board of Cosmetology License exam.

Stepanyan always hoped to come back and finish. So when a chair in the cosmetology department — which functions as a Los Angeles County Regional Occupation Program — opened up, she took it. Now she balances the class with a job at the Mignon Chocolate shop on Verdugo Road.

“I would definitely like to work in a salon, somewhere where I can still learn a lot of things,” Stepanyan said. “Maybe one day I will have my own salon.”

As she readied her scissors over my head, instructor Beatrice Virsack gave her words of advice on how to preserve the shape of my asymmetrical bob (I asked for a 1-inch trim).

“I have had students call me from as far as San Francisco and one from New York to ask me about a hair color,” said Virsack, who graduated from Glendale High School in 1971 and began teaching there six years later.

The fully credentialed program is the only one of its kind on a high school campus in California, Virsack said, and has weathered 74 years’ worth of budget cuts, as well as shifting attitudes about professional training programs.

“In the ’80s ‘vocational’ was almost a dirty word,” Virsack said. “But thank God they saw the light because people need skills.”

The program enrolls more than 200 students a semester, with the most advanced working on paying customers several days a week.

“Probably in every salon in Glendale, there is one of our students,” Virsack said.

Stepanyan navigated her way around my head with confidence, and 40 minutes later she was done. I was quite pleased with the results, not least because of the price — the $4 cut and blow dry was a fraction of what most women pay at a professional salon.

“It is super inexpensive and convenient,” said Yana Karibyan, a Glendale High School English teacher who was having her hair worked on a few chairs down. “I have a 2-year-old at home. I can’t be standing in front of the mirror for hours.”

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