Rosa Parks students, staff adorn school in colorful tiles
Local schools, and many area businesses, were closed Monday to honor the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. But Phoebe Ackley, an after-school art teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary School, was hard at work – on a very appropriate project.
Ackley, working with two tile setters from Doty Tile of Oakland, affixed the last of 400 tiles, commemorating civil rights leader Rosa Parks, to a pair of benches in front of the main entrance to the school.
Students from kindergarten to fifth grade created the majority of the tiles in October and November as part of a five-week curriculum combining art and civil rights education. School staff and parents crafted a number of their own tiles in subsequent weeks.
“I think it’s an incredible project, it has incredible aesthetic value,” said Rebecca Herman, parent of two children at the school. “But it also includes a valuable message about the legacy of the civil rights movement.”
“I think one of the really important things (for the students), aside from the educational component,” said Ackley, “is the idea of collaborating on something that doesn’t belong to them, that becomes part of the community, that they can look at with pride.”
The tile project is one of several initiatives in a year-long dedication of the school. Rosa Parks, formerly Columbus, was damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The district completed construction on the “new Columbus” in the mid-1990s, and, a year-and-a-half ago, renamed the school in honor of the civil rights activist.
On Nov. 29, the school hosted a dedication night for families, and three weeks ago, Rosa Parks received its first school sign emblazoned with its new name. Rosa Parks will hold a larger dedication from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. March 23, replete with local officials and activities for kids.
Kathy Freeburg, curriculum coordinator at Rosa Parks, worked with kindergarten teacher Marti Mogensen to win a $4,000 grant from the Berkeley Public Education Foundation to fund the dedication activities, including a portion of the $9,000 tile project.
Funding for the project came in part from the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project, a taxpayer-funded pool of money set aside for the district, and Rosa Parks’ “school improvement funds” paid for the rest.
Freeburg says the dedication activities, including the tile project, have helped bring the school community together around its new name.
“It’s an identity piece for the school,” she said. “Each tile has a personal meaning. But as a whole work of art, it has a larger meaning.”
Principal Alison Kelly said the project is particularly important for a school with a diverse student population.
“We have to make sure the kids feel the school represents them,” she said. “They need to have some ownership.”
Ackley worked with the Museum of Children’s Art, or MOCHA, in Oakland, to develop the project. MOCHA staff crafted the curriculum to accompany the project, and trained school staff on how to put the curriculum into action.
After the trainings, Ackley and MOCHA’s Eric Haber divided the school’s classrooms between them, and visited each one for an hour each week, for five weeks.
Ackley and Haber began by talking with the students about Rosa Parks and public art, and brainstorming around words they associated with the leader of the famous Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955.
Then, students began drawing images that represented their thoughts and feelings about Parks. Eventually, they transferred those images – of hearts, peace signs and buses – onto tiles, using glaze.
Leah Goodwin, education director at MOCHA, said the use of symbols helps students grapple with difficult subject matter.
“It’s a way of getting kids to hold onto what they’re learning,” she said, labeling the concept “visual literacy.”
“It makes the material more exciting when there’s a hands-on connection,” added Ackers.
Laura Carr, a parent who volunteered in her daughter’s second grade classroom during the creation of the tiles, is thrilled with the result.
“Not only did they learn about Rosa Parks,” she said, “but they learned how to paint beautiful tiles.”
Those interested in the March 23 dedication should call Kathy Freeburg at 644-8655. The school is particularly interested in drawing alumni of the old Columbus School.