Palo Alto school-district bond, dreams of students brought media center to life


What will the newsroom-classroom of the future look like?

Backed with about $10 million in voter-approved funding, Paly journalism teachers and students set out five years ago to answer this question, creating a next-century Media Arts Center designed to serve the school and community for generations.

The timing couldn't have been more perfect. In June 2008 right before the recession hit Palo Alto voters overwhelmingly approved a Strong Schools Bond, making a $378 million investment in the school district's future, which would require much more capacity and upgraded technology.

The bond gave schools a chance to make bids for projects or improvements they had long lusted after. Journalism adviser Paul Kandell remembers a 2009 school board meeting during which Paly and Gunn high schools presented proposals for their respective dream facilities. Paly's was the Media Arts Center.

"When we did that presentation, it was unlike anything you've ever seen at the board," Kandell said. "After we were done, they took their vote and then called a recess, and they just jumped up and came down and hugged us. It was a really bizarre thing. They found it an inspiration."

The proposal the board saw that night was the result of multiple iterations crafted after careful research, visits to similar, notable centers, and plenty of input from students.

Kandell and former journalism adviser Ellen Austin guided the brainstorming process with the help of five principles that the newsrooms of the future should embody, formulated by Chris O' Brien, a San Jose Mercury News business reporter who started The Next Newsroom Project, an initiative to redesign the home for the newspaper at Duke University (his alma mater). Kandell discovered that O'Brien's principles rang true with the vision for what he referred to in 2009 as a "media arts temple." O'Brien said that newsrooms should promote multi-platform publishing, collaboration, a sense of community, transparency and innovation.

Kandell and Austin gave the principles to their students and asked them, "If you could create the newsroom or journalism facility of your dreams, and these are the principles that you have, what would it look like?"

Seven classes of journalism students came up with long lists of ideas and must-have features. They sketched building designs, which Kandell said all featured plenty of glass (their literal interpretation of the transparency principle). The ideas were eventually compressed into one presentation, which teachers and students then took to a journalism convention in Arizona, where they were further inspired by Arizona State University's six-story, 225,000-square-foot Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. They came home, presented a final proposal to the school's facilities committee and then brought a conceptual design to the school board for approval.

Integral to the center's concept and design was the fact that it was not going to be space used exclusively by students. Paly at the time needed a central gathering space for faculty; all faculty meetings are now held in the center. Principal Kim Diorio and other staff frequently gather in an airy upstairs conference space dubbed the "board room."

The center was also designed to be a space for all kinds of events that reach beyond the Paly community: debates, film festivals, art exhibits, conferences, even school board meetings.

"This was in 2008, 2009, when people were (asking), 'Is news going to die completely?' All these newspapers were dying, literally, and what was the answer? Part of it was to merge yourself with the community and to become more focused on your community," Kandell said. "I think they should have school board meetings in here and public debates. This should be the place where this stuff happens."

After receiving the board's blessing in 2009 and moving forward on the design, then-Principal Jacquie McEvoy applied for a $2.7 million Career Technical Education grant from the state to help pay for some additional bells and whistles (including the ticker, LCD screens, a giant projector screen and the unconventional furniture).

The final financial layer was the creation of a Paly Media Arts Boosters group, which to date has raised about $200,000, including an $85,000 gift from the Brin-Wojcicki Foundation, the family foundation of Wojcicki's daughter, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki, and son-in-law, Google co-founder Sergey Brin. The Boosters today continue to raise funds to support media-arts initiatives at the high school.

These three financing pieces made the center possible and just in time before the economy totally fell apart, Kandell said. They broke ground in 2011, aiming to finish in two years, which turned into three after delays caused by litigation with the contractor hired for the project, Taisei Construction Company. (Though the center is now open, that legal dispute continues.)

Journalistic and technology details abound in the Media Arts Center. In the bathrooms, white tiled walls are sprinkled with light teal tiles emblazoned with humorous headlines from real publications, along with the date they ran. One in the women's bathroom reads, "Poll says that 53% believe media offen make mistakes" (from the San Diego Union Tribune on July 12, 1998). Another: "Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25" (Denver Post on May 14, 1995).

The father of one student built benches fit for the center: two old Apple computers serve as the legs of the bench, connected by wooden slats to sit on.

Windows that form one wall of the main computer lab downstairs provide not just a transparent view in and out but also function as workspace: During production, students have been known to write detailed layout notes on the windows as if on a whiteboard.

The first-floor atrium can accommodate 200 people. A 16-by-20-foot projector screen is perfect for videos or presentations. There's also a full kitchen for event staging or catering.

While students have been making full use of the center since the beginning of the school year, it just opened to the public this week, with an invite-only event Thursday featuring Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post; David Kelley of Ideo, who now heads Stanford University's d. school; and Shelby Coffey, journalist and trustee of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. A public open house with tours and food will take place tonight, Friday, from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday evening is dedicated to an art show and film premiere by actor James Franco, with limited tickets available. Paly graduate Franco was a student of Wojcicki's for two-and-a-half years.

Wojcicki said the Media Arts Center was a product of "the right people at the right time." McEvoy laid the financial groundwork with the state educational grant.

And because of Kandell, a former Newsweek stringer and San Francisco high school teacher whom Wojcicki hired in the late 1990s to run Verde magazine and build a website, the new center has become what it is today, she said.

"Every detail in this building, he dreamt about at night. The building wouldn't be as great as it is if he hadn't been involved. It would have been an ordinary, boring building," she said.

Related content:

Palo Alto students learn about -- and dive into -- the Fourth Estate in state-of-the-art media center

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