From Public Workshop’s Project Archives:
Project: The Sunshine School
Project Director: Alex Gilliam
ʻOur school was really in a mess. And since it was down, everyone here was down because it was just a disaster.ʼ
Many of the schools in rural Alabama are in an incredible state of physical and emotional disrepair because they have been historically understaffed, under funded, and building maintenance has been limited to emergency repairs. The physical condition of schools such as the Sunshine School (near the small town of Newbern) communicate to the students and teachers that no one at the local, state or federal level cares.
Why should they care enough to maintain their school, behave well or succeed educationally?
Indeed, schools such as Sunshine are often not only physically decrepit, but also in emotional shambles. Students at Sunshine routinely and purposely fail to mention the name of their school when out in public because they are ashamed of its condition. For much of Alex Gilliam’s (Director of Public Workshop) Outreach Fellowship at the Rural Studio he attempted to ﬁnd solutions to these problems and at the same time create models for how architects can more easily and effectively become involved in their communities, and schools. The cornerstone of his work at Sunshine was empowering the students to take over the school. Students controlled every aspect of the process. They identiﬁed the problems (they began by photography everything they didn’t like about their school), they prioritized repairs, they came up with solutions, they chose the colors of paint, they picked up trash, they replaced windows, they designed murals, demolished derelict structures, certain students led and taught large groups of students how to complete certain tasks and they even made the picture frames to remind everyone of how much the school had accomplished. Their output and enthusiasm was remarkable. Alex was constantly besieged by students with offers to help out, no matter how mundane the task or project.
Save for the murals, these changes were largely incremental and there is still an imposing amount of work to do, but the students and the teachers saw the school changing and they accomplished an incredible amount in just three months. The number of doors painted is alone quite staggering (37). Even more importantly the students realized that they were the ones making it happen and that they were establishing precedents for their teachers and the younger siblings. It quickly became apparent that by ﬁxing up and redesigning portions of the school, the students were actually rebuilding the school’s collective spirit and pride as well as becoming leaders and model community members.
ʻAnd now, like, some of us have little sisters and brothers in elementary (school) and just seeing us do something would make them (say), you know ʻWell, hey, my big sister did this, Iʼve got something to be proud of. Maybe we can do that before I leave Sunshine.ʼ So things are coming along pretty good. Why? All because of us.ʼ
This project was cathartic for Alex Gilliam and Public Workshop as it demonstrated the absolute transformational power of directly engaging people in redesigning and rebuilding the places in which they live. Better yet, instead of going to great lengths to ‘control’ students in sick and underperforming schools, perhaps we should simply give them the fundamental thing that teenagers seek- control over the environment around them. This project and others by Public Workshop demonstrate that if we do this, not only can you diminish a school’s behavior problems and improve the condition of the school, but you can also create students who are much more motivated to do amazing things with their lives.
To this day, Public Workshop continues to strive to create new opportunities and processes that seek to maximize the potential of design as a tool for positive social change- in a school, a community, an office or in our everyday lives.