World-famous architect Frank Gehry brought the same concepts he has used with teams to design renowned buildings, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, to an East Palo Alto classroom on Tuesday afternoon.
Fourth-graders at Costaño Elementary School had the chance to design and model their own city filled with a stadium, courthouses, a chicken restaurant and more, through the guidance of Frank Gehry. The special afternoon visit was sponsored by Turnaround Arts: California, a nonprofit co-founded by Gehry, as well as Facebook. The program helps integrate the arts in the nation's highest-needs schools. Costaño has worked with the nonprofit since 2016.
Using cardboard boxes, wood and plastic, the children worked in teams to build their own cities with skyscrapers, courthouses and stadiums -- an activity intended to help them build confidence and critical-thinking skills.
After each team finished its project, members assembled it all together in a center table where they explained their cityscapes: schools, hospitals and other buildings inspired by Gehry and his mentorship.
"You could really build that, that could really be built," Gehry said, telling the students they could find future job opportunities with him. Their excitement filled the room, as they showed off their creations and shouted over each other to get Ghery's attention.
Costaño Elementary was an underperforming school up until three years ago, when they first enrolled with Turnaround Arts, according to Principal Viviana Espinosa. She said the school is more than just a lot of homeless children, who make up about 60% of the student population. They are a community that wants integration and to have their voices heard.
"These kids bring so much to the table," Espinosa said. "In giving them this opportunity to process the world differently, to have their voices be heard and to show them how to do it in a productive way, it's powerful."
"We started to realize that arts education was really only happening in rich schools and private school," Malissa Shriver, president and co-founder of Turnaround Arts said about when she first spoke to Gehry about starting this project.
"The poorest kids who really benefit the most are getting the least."
Both Espinosa and Shriver felt visual arts is the most engaging content and can be easily integrated with other curriculum such as math or English.
"For kids who don't have English as their first language, they live in extreme poverty, live with a lot of stress such as homelessness and incarcerated parents. They need this more than anybody," Shriver said.
Angela Karamian, the visual arts teacher at Costaño, said she supports the goals of the program: integrating arts education in the classroom, climate and culture in the school campus and engaging families and the community.
"The kids that come here, there's a lot of tragic circumstances that they have to go through and they have to come to school, they bring all of that stuff with them," Karamian said.
"We always think of this (as) a place where they can come and it’s healing, it's affirming who they are and we try to make them proud of who they are."
Bill Correll, a makerspace teacher, said integrating art with other curriculum such as STEM helps people realize the practicality of the theories and helps stimulate the kids critical-thinking skills.
"I think that it makes science, engineering and math more practical as opposed to something that is theoretical and book-centric," Correll said.
Gehry said he was always interested in schools with children lacking an interest in education.
"Those are the schools in need," Gehry said. "They drop out because they're bored with the teaching."
Gehry said if you get kids to build makeshift cities such as they did in the class, you can teach them how to calculate areas of buildings, or teaching them about politics and how city management works.
"They're pretty engaged right now because they’re making stuff," Gehry said. "They understand there’s more to life."
He pointed out the pride in the face of one of the children working on her building, reflecting his own pride in seeing how dedicated the class was to their creations.
"It's going to inspire me," Gehry said.