In Room 5 at Belle Haven Elementary School in East Menlo Park, Aly Seedman sits reading a book to her second-grade class. Twenty-three children huddle on the rainbow-colored carpet at her feet, listening as she narrates a story about a fun-loving penguin. One boy raises his hand to ask a question, but it's not about the story.
"How long are they going to stay with us?" he asks.
"They're going to leave when we go to lunch," Seedman replies.
"Awww! Could they stay with us double time?"
A buzz of excited chatter travels around the room.
The much-anticipated visitors are second-grade students from Jen Koepnick's class at Palo Alto's Fairmeadow Elementary School, located just 6 miles southeast of Belle Haven. They're due to arrive any minute for a special morning of activities and art projects, the second such exchange the two classes have shared since the start of the school year. As the students wait eagerly, teaching artist Heewon Park bustles around the room, preparing art supplies.
The day is part of Cultural Kaleidoscope, a program founded 16 years ago by the Palo Alto Art Center as a way to bridge the divide between neighboring -- yet startlingly disparate -- communities and school districts.
One of the program's founders, longtime arts and education advocate Carolyn Tucher, remembered that the inspiration for the program came during a difficult era for the region.
"There was a time when East Palo Alto was considered the murder capital of the country," she recalled. "The three mayors of Menlo Park, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto got together and worked out a joint policing program." Tucher was a Palo Alto resident who had served two terms on the Palo Alto Unified School District board. Along with her friend Myrtle Walker, a resident of East Palo Alto who served on the board of the Ravenswood City School District, Tucher decided to launch a parallel effort in the arts.
"We said together, 'Gosh, it's great to get our cities working together on this necessary and important police work, but couldn't we do something very positive and more interesting, like bringing children and families together?'"
In its early years, Cultural Kaleidoscope was a fundraiser for art in schools: a cultural night for adults held at the Palo Alto Art Center. After a few years, it evolved into a full day of art workshops for children and their families and was alternately held in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. The turnout was good at first, Tucher said, but as attendance began to drop off in years three and four, she noticed something else.
"I have a vivid picture in my mind of an East Palo Alto father and child working together very sweetly, and next to them a Palo Alto mother and her child, but there was no interaction between the families," Tucher recalled.
Walker also spoke of the early years of Cultural Kaleidoscope with fondness, remembering her hope that they might eventually build a dedicated cultural arts center where residents of East Palo Alto and Palo Alto could meet and share activities.
"The initial inspiration was for the two cities to have a venue to be able to interact with each other," explained Walker. "We raised money for a cultural center for East Palo Alto where people of all ethnic groups and financial situations could come together."
Though Walker said Cultural Kaleidoscope events raised about $30,000 toward that goal, a sum that was eventually donated to the City of East Palo Alto, the cultural center she envisioned was never built. In recent years, she has shifted her attention to community health work. Yet Walker hasn't forgotten the promise of a space that might bring Palo Alto and East Palo Alto closer together.
"I would hope that we could do something like that again between the two cities," she said. "I really do."
For the meantime, Cultural Kaleidoscope has taken a different form: a program that each year pairs classrooms in Palo Alto with those of the same grade in Ravenswood and sends a teaching artist into the paired classrooms over the course of 10 sessions. Students write postcards to their "buddies," prepare their classrooms for visits and meet in person three times over the course of the program: twice for collaboration days and once for an end-of-the-year field trip to the Palo Alto Art Center, where they get to see their creations installed in a professional museum setting.
In recent years, Cultural Kaleidoscope has expanded and formalized, hiring a part-time coordinator and including more professional development and assessment. In February, the California Association of Museums awarded Cultural Kaleidoscope a State Superintendent's Award for Excellence in Museum Education in recognition of the program's impact on the region's students.
Seedman's and Koepnick's classes are just two of 20 participating in this year's Cultural Kaleidoscope program, and Park is one of 10 visiting artists. Though bringing professional teaching artists into schools is far from a unique concept -- many Palo Alto schools participate in the Special Teacher Resources in the Arts (SPECTRA) program, and museums across the nation including New York's Guggenheim offer programs that bring art specialists into school settings -- Cultural Kaleidoscope is unusual in the way it pairs children from different socio-economic backgrounds, as well as in the way it presents their work to the public.
On Saturday, May 2, Palo Alto Art Center will open an exhibition of work created by this year's Cultural Kaleidoscope participants. The show will run through Sunday, May 24. During the month of May, all classes that have participated in the 2015 program will visit the center along with their buddy class, take a guided docent tour and see their works displayed.
For many, it will be their first time in an art gallery.
"Last year, kids left the Art Center saying, 'Wow, we're real artists,'" said Palo Alto Art Center Director Karen Kienzle. "That's the kind of experience that can instill a lifelong love of museums."
According to Kienzle and Cultural Kaleidoscope coordinator Jenny Wei, helping classroom teachers and teaching artists to work closely together has been crucial to the ongoing success of the program.
"We help teaching artists to integrate their art projects with the standards and units teachers are dealing with in the classroom," Wei explained.
Both Wei and Kienzle talk about the "Four Cs": creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication, otherwise known as "21st-century skills." In joint sessions before Cultural Kaleidoscope begins each year, classroom teachers and teaching artists get together to discuss their particular goals and to design projects that will foster in their students the skills they feel are most important.
This year, fifth-grade students from paired schools exchanged postcards as a way of introducing themselves. Asked what they would change about their communities, they tackled topics from immigration to gender equality and access to healthcare. Using rubber blocks and carving tools, they designed original stamps, created the cards and wrote notes to their buddies before dropping their cards in the mail.
Amy Padilla, a fifth-grade teacher at Los Robles Dual Immersion Magnet Academy in East Palo Alto, has taken part in Cultural Kaleidoscope twice in the past few years, and said she thinks the exchange with Palo Alto students is a highlight of the program.
"I think it's been fun for students to find commonalities before they meet, and then when they actually meet, the artists and staff have been good at mindfully planning activities that will allow them to get to know each other better," Padilla noted. Among those activities this year was a "friend Venn diagram" students used to discover shared experiences and interests as well as differences.
Once students from paired schools are better acquainted, they move more naturally into shared art activities.
"It's really giving them skills they wouldn't have access to otherwise in terms of art," she said. "I also think this is a great opportunity for them to express things that are important to them in a different way. We are used to expressing our thoughts orally or in writing, but to express ideas in art is something we don't do as often. It's teaching them discipline, and persevering at a challenging task. They have a lot of pride in their products."
Teaching artist Park explained that her lessons this year drew from various cultural traditions and introduced students to a range of skills, including ceramics, painting and weaving, a technique that required particular focus for younger students.
"The second-graders' behavior is not always quiet, but when they did the weaving at Fairmeadow, the motion sensor activated light actually went out," she noted. "I think it was the first time the kids had ever stopped moving for that long."
Other Cultural Kaleidoscope projects this year included brightly colored and patterned animals inspired by Oaxacan alebrijes, mosaics, portraits and African-style masks. These works and others will be on display at the Art Center.
Less evident than each student's artistic accomplishments -- but no less important -- are the friendships forged between them over the course of the past few months: the shared conversations, the visits to each other's classrooms and the deeper familiarity with schools and neighborhoods other than their own. That's the outcome Tucher and Walker had in mind 16 years ago.
"We live in these separate communities as though we were so different, but it's really important that we get to know our neighbors," Tucher reflected. "I think for those who have participated in Cultural Kaleidoscope -- teachers, artists and children -- it's been a meaningful experience of coming together as a larger community, not just staying in our little boxes."
What: Cultural Kaleidoscope end-of-year exhibition
Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto
When: Saturday, May 2-Sunday, May 24, with a reception Wednesday, May 6, 4:30-7 p.m. Art Center hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m. Closed Monday.
Info: Go to cityofpaloalto.org or call 650-329-2366.