In surveys and focus groups conducted by a Palo Alto architecture firm this year, Gunn High School students said their campus is big, confusing and hard to navigate, with a mostly dark-brown color scheme they described as "dull," "tired," "dreary" and "uninspired."
What they wanted, they said, were colors that would make them feel "excited," "happy," "energetic" and "empowered."
And now, they'll get that. The school board expressed strong support at its meeting Tuesday night for a proposal to repaint Gunn in a new earthy, neutral color scheme inspired in part by the trees and plants on and around the Arastradero Road campus.
The most important part of the color scheme, though, was that it was selected with deep input from the students themselves.
The Gunn administration picked up again this school year a yearslong proposal to repaint the school, first proposed by the Gunn Advisory Committee (GAC) in 2013. In December, the school's site council selected Palo Alto-based Architarian Design to lead an inclusive process for deciding on a new exterior color scheme for the campus.
In early 2016, Architarian Design staff met with the Gunn community to gather input. They held five focus groups with more than 50 students; surveyed students, staff and parents; and held activities at a sports rally and Gunn's TedX conference. They put up a series of interactive posters around the school (one had a color wheel and asked students to place dot-stickers on the colors they preferred; another had a map of the school and asked "What is a good place for murals/public art?"), tested different colors around campus and met with Gunn's student government many times. They also created a website to document their efforts along the way and ultimately held an online poll to determine which of two final design schemes the students preferred.
All in all, the firm said they reached more than 300 students, 50 staff members and 100 parents through this work.
Several priorities emerged through the firm's engagement with the Gunn community. Students said they preferred earthy, neutral, calming tones; bright colors were perceived as too bold and "pressured," Architarian Design Founder Elaine Uang told the board Tuesday night.
Students also said social spaces and unified community gathering spaces on campus were high priorities. Students also resonated with the natural elements of their campus and the surrounding area, Uang said. (Firm staff even gathered samples of "natural elements" on campus trees, bark, plants, flowers and posted photos of them on the project website.)
Staff and parents also said having color-coded buildings to help people find their way is important. Students, parents and staff all said they would like to have murals on campus.
Ultimately, Architarian Design proposed two color schemes dubbed "Wildflowers" and "Golden State" and students voted on the options online.
"Wildflowers," which draws from warm, neutral colors (mostly light browns and some pastel colors), won with 73 percent of support compared to 27 percent for "Golden State." The design includes color-coding by building cluster (certain wings will get certain accent colors painted on doors and beams, for example), lighter-colored ceilings (which are "very low and dark right now," Uang said) and walls and accent colors, like Titan red, used primarily in social spaces. Benches and tables in the quad will be painted bright red. The school also plans to bring in a professional muralist at a later date to work with students to paint murals around campus.
Gunn's student board representative, Grace Park, said a small section outside the Student Activities Center repainted in the "Wildflowers" scheme has drawn students' attention. When students walk by, they do a double take and look like they're thinking to themselves, "'Wait, that's not normal,' and I think it's not normal in a very, very beautiful way," Park said.
She said when the process began, most students knew they wanted a brighter campus, but didn't know what exactly that would look like.
"We weren't sure how you could repaint an entire school to make it still have that same feeling of Gunn and be familiar but somehow a better version of Gunn," she said. "I think this product that they just described to you is really what we wanted and didn't realize we wanted."
Board members hailed the project for not only having the potential to "transform" Gunn physically, but also modeling an inclusive process for seeking student voice an issue that was at the forefront of emotional conversations at the board and school level in particular during the last school year.
"When we have to do other things when we want to incorporate student voice, I think these are good models," said board Vice President Terry Godfrey.
Board member Ken Dauber said he remembered when the idea to repaint Gunn first came up several years ago.
"It was intended to be a concrete symbol of the care of the community for students at Gunn and for staff at Gunn, and I'm very pleased to see it's gotten to the point that it has," he said. "I think it will play that role."
Funding for the project, which has an estimated cost of $1 million, will come from the district's Planned Maintenance fund. The project will have to come back to the board for an official vote at its next meeting, but staff plan to start the painting project in June after the school year ends.