From Bertie to Berkeley: The next generation of Studio H
04 June 2012
Dear friends and supporters,
After three years of living, teaching, and building in rural Bertie County in eastern North Carolina, Project H will be moving the headquarters of our Studio H high school design/build program to REALM Charter School in Berkeley, California this summer. This decision comes after months of deliberation, planning, and negotiation; please read on for the whole story of both our departure from Bertie and launch at REALM (apologies for our lengthiness: we wanted to be thorough in the communication of this announcement).
As many of you know, we first began working in Bertie County in April 2009, and have since completed a total of 15 architectural and design projects and taught 26 students as part of our Studio H program. In the past two years of Studio H, our junior-year students have inspired us beyond belief, becoming leaders of their small town. They have designed and constructed three public chicken coops in a county where the largest employer is the industrial Perdue chicken processing plant. They launched a farmers market enterprise for their hometown (Bertie County is a designated food desert), including the construction of a 2000-square-foot farmers market pavilion and two smaller iconic farmstands at strategic county intersections, and the organization of the town-managed governing association of 35 local farmers. They worked on these projects as part of their school day, earning high school credit, 17 transferable college credits, and work stipends during construction. Our first cohort (2010-2011 school year students) just graduated from high school, many as the first in their families to move on to college. As for us, we came to school as their teachers every day, getting to know them as students, young citizens, and Bertie County’s next generation of mayors, small businessmen, and visionaries. We believed (and continue to believe) that the combination of creativity and hands-on building skills, put towards full-scale community-centered projects, is an ideal arsenal for engaged public education.
Windsor Super Market pavilion, designed and built by Studio H students
Photo: Brad Feinknopf 2011
When we initially moved operations to Bertie County, we had the steadfast support of a visionary superintendent, who believed that design could be a path to progress in this deep Southern, divided rural community. We wrote the Studio H curriculum as a vocational program for junior-year students within the public high school, with myself (Emily Pilloton, Project H founder/executive director) and Matthew Miller (project manager) in full-time teaching positions. Four weeks before we launched the first academic year of Studio H in August 2010, political tensions between the school district’s board and administration forced our forward-thinking superintendent out of his position (and out of town). With his departure went many programs he spearheaded. Studio H was on the chopping block, and our offered teaching salaries and financial investment from the district were now “off the table.” Despite the 11th-hour resistance from the politically charged school board, we chose to stay in Bertie County to launch Studio H, self-funded without district support, because of the immense support and excitement from students, their families, the greater community, town leaders, and some generous funders who believed in the value of hands-on, vocational, community-driven high school education. To date, all of our Studio H costs (shop equipment, classroom materials, student stipends, salaries, construction materials, etc) have been entirely supported by grants and individual donom (to whom we are deeply grateful).
After two full school years, our program remains unsupported by the school administration despite our role as full-time teachers within the school system, steadfast support from the community, and the quality of the work our students have delivered. This has left us without a shared investment in the long-term success of Studio H, with 100% of the funding burden. Given this unsustainable financial model, our ongoing presence here would be a disservice to future students, as we would not be able to guarantee their enrollment due to our annual reliance on grants. This model is also a disservice to the citizens of Bertie County, who deserve the partnership and support of their local county leadership, as well as a disservice to our organization and the greater design community, as we seek to set an example for how design for social impact can, in fact, become a sustainable fiscal model for creative professionals (our move to REALM Charter School is a great step in the direction of financial viability and shared investment for a socially oriented design practice).
What we know beyond any doubt, is that Studio H’s legacy in Bertie County lives within our students and in the programs and structures they have built with their own sweat and creativity. They have proven to us that Studio H is a transformative approach to education. One of our students put this beautifully: “Studio H has changed the way I approach life. I have learned that no matter what the challenge, to never underestimate what is possible. With these new lessons I can make my future what I want it to be, not what someone else wants it to be.” Studio H has also proven to Bertie County (and supporters around the world) that anything is possible when youth are given the creative and real-world tools to build physical solutions. Our students have made history, as the only high school students in the country to initiate, design, build, fund, and open a local farmers market for their hometown. The farmers market structure which began as sketch models on their desks, was recently featured in Architectural Record. We have absolute confidence that after our departure, their presence and role in Bertie County will continue to garner the support of the local town leaders, families, and neighbors that will change this community for the better. Despite the political turmoil and systemic limitations that were beyond our control, it was our choice to stay in Bertie County, to build, and to teach, and we leave feeling great about what we have accomplished alongside our students.
An outspoken Bertie County resident and Studio H supporter left us with these words in a recent email: “You and your students have absolutely have left a legacy here and I just hope we can honor it moving forward. We can feel your backdraft, so I know we have a chance.”
While we are saddened to leave Bertie County, we are also thrilled to be joining the staff and administration of REALM Charter School in Berkeley starting this August. For the past two years, we have been inspired by REALM, its teachers, students, and principal / executive director / fearless leader Victor Diaz, who opened the school in August 2011 as a “Revolutionary Education And Learning Movement.” The school’s mission is “to cultivate resiliency, develop critical thinking skills, advance knowledge through rigorous studies, and equip students to serve our communities and the world in the 21st century.”
At REALM, we will join a diverse community of teachers and students who will challenge and push Studio H into an even more robust and effective curriculum, presenting new (urban) contexts for the work our students produce. As Studio H has always been rooted in the development and execution of creative solutions that stem from a particular context, we feel confident that REALM’s location and community will inspire new avenues, projects, and outputs that benefit the student body and the greater geographic area. While the limitations of building full-scale architecture in the urban Bay Area are more constrained than rural Bertie County, we will continue to pursue physical, built projects that are visible and in use by our students, their families, and neighbors. Most importantly, we are excited that Studio H will have a chance to grow and thrive in an active and collaborative environment like REALM.
Structurally, REALM offers Project H Design, as an organization, a sustainable source of overhead support and a shared investment in the program’s success. Matthew Miller (our project manager) will join REALM as a full-time Design Instructor, while I (Emily Pilloton, executive director) will serve as REALM’s Design Director, balancing classroom instruction with school-wide leadership for project-based learning and the school’s quarterly design challenges.
Victor Diaz, REALM’s principal and executive director, expressed his own excitement about our partnership: “Studio H brings an expertise, compassion, and imagination that not only encourages action but almost dares students into building the unimaginable. REALM is honored to collaborate with Studio H on this journey to remake public education. REALM, on its own, could never achieve what families, students, and teachers will now be able to accomplish partnering with Studio H–thoughtful and long-lasting community transformation.”
As we make this exciting transition, we are hugely indebted to all our partners and supporters in Bertie County: Mayor Hoggard, Pitt Community College, and the families of the Bertie County Schools. Most importantly, we thank our students, for whom we got up every morning and were inspired every day, and who will carry the torch of progress in Bertie County. Kerron, our Year 1 student, articulated this at the grand opening for the farmers market pavilion, when he told the Mayor, “I hope to come back here with my children someday and tell them I built this.” We hope that this sentiment will be carried on by our new students at REALM Charter School, and we can’t wait to get started.
Emily Pilloton, Founder and Executive Director
Project H Design