Renowned architect Frank Gehry helps East Palo Alto students imagine future cities

Fourth graders learn about architecture from man who helped design Walt Disney Concert Hall, Facebook campus

Architect Frank Gehry observes Costano Elementary School students Paula Tofavatta, right, and Sione Fusimalohi, left, as they build a model of a courthouse using materials donated by Gehry's firm as part of a special program of Turnaround Arts: California. The model-making emulates Gehry's approach to architecture, in which design is created using physical objects. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Architect Frank Gehry brought the same concepts he has used with teams to design buildings acclaimed for their innovation, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Facebook campus facilities in Menlo Park, to an East Palo Alto classroom on May 21.

Fourth graders at Costano Elementary School had the chance to design and model their own city filled with a stadium, courthouses, a chicken restaurant and more, through the Gehry's guidance.

The 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. Costano 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 on a center table and 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 Gehry's attention.

Costano Elementary was an underperforming school up until three years ago, when it 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. It is a community that wants integration and to have students' 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," said Malissa Shriver, president and co-founder of Turnaround Arts.

"The poorest kids who really benefit the most are getting the least."

Both Espinosa and Shriver said the visual arts are engaging 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 Costano, said she supports the goals of the program: integrating arts education in the classroom, climate and culture of the school 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 (science, technology, engineering and math) studies 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 who lack 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 teach 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 child who was working on her building, reflecting his own pride in seeing how dedicated the students were to their creations.

"It's going to inspire me," Gehry said.

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