OAKLAND — When Joaquin Alvarado first stepped foot in the computer lab at North Oakland's Claremont Middle School, it was as if he had gone back in time. The technology and curriculum at the 21st century Bay Area school were stuck in the 1980s.
"It hadn't changed much since I was going to middle school," says Alvarado, a Claremont parent and Oakland native who founded the Institute for Next Generation Internet at San Francisco State. "I couldn't imagine any kid being interested or compelled by it."
Fast forward to January 2009, and 13-year-old Tyrone Dangerfield is explaining how he created a three-dimensional space shuttle using Maya animation software.
"I have a ship that I created. This ship here, it spins when it lands," Tyrone says, pointing to the object whirling across his large iMac screen. "I custom-made these side panels here in the space station."
Last fall, Claremont became one of the first middle schools in California, and possibly in the United States, to teach three-dimensional animation during the school day. About 80 of the school's 400-plus students have completed one semester. Another 40 are enrolled in after-school "Tech Squad" filmmaking and Web design programs, which also are offered on two middle school campuses in East Oakland: Frick and Havenscourt.
The technological transformation at Claremont didn't come from the school board, the district's curriculum department, or even the principal's office.
When the teachers — independent contractors — weren't paid on time, the PTA stepped in. When thieves broke into the lab, a parent fronted the money to replace some of the stolen equipment.
Alvarado and Mike Mages, who have devoted countless hours to the project, see the Media Lab as a way to prepare children for careers in science, technology, engineering and other major Bay Area industries. But they also think it will help bridge the vast academic and socioeconomic divides within Claremont, and that it will give kids another opportunity to shine and feel more connected to the school — something its flourishing music program has done.
Tyrone and classmate Stephen Buhl, 12, said the challenging animation course taught by Peter Heckel and Patrick O'Hearn was by far the highlight of their school day.
"I just can't wait to get to this class," Stephen said.
"Me too," Tyrone said. "I'm like, 'Ha! Sixth period, sixth period, sixth period.'""
Claremont is located in the largely upper-middle-class Rockridge neighborhood, but nearly two-thirds of its students come from impoverished backgrounds. Some students excel, while others struggle with basic reading and math skills.
Discipline is a concern; Claremont has held numerous meetings to address its "school climate." (During a visit to the Media Lab last week, the fire alarm went off twice as school let out for the day. No one seemed fazed; one student explained that kids sometimes pull the alarm as a prank.)
Alvarado said the animation classes are among the most socioeconomically integrated at Claremont. The material is new to everyone, which creates a more even playing field. Even those who are struggling in other academic areas, he said, "can still succeed in ways that defy the standard logic around what these kids can do."
Tony Mills, a commercial filmmaker and Claremont parent, teaches an after-school documentary class for no charge as part of the "Tech Squad" program. He started by teaching iMovie, basic video-editing software, but the kids absorbed it so quickly that he switched to Final Cut Pro, a more complex program used by multimedia professionals.
"I thought, 'This is going to slow them down,'"" Mills said, of his original plan.
Alvarado and Mages want to expand the school's high-tech offerings next year and to work with teachers to incorporate some of the technology into the science and math curriculum. They eventually aim to create a similar program at Oakland Technical High School, where many Claremont students will continue after eighth grade.
Heckel and O'Hearn, who studied animation at San Francisco State University, developed the animation lessons from scratch with the adolescent attention span in mind. Heckel says he will work on an intermediate-level course over the summer — as long as the problems with his contract are resolved. Like many independent contractors in the Oakland school district, the teachers in Claremont's Media Lab weren't properly paid during the first half of the school year. A school board policy adopted in October required all new and existing contracts to be approved by the board of directors, which caused delays, school district spokesman Troy Flint said.
Flint said district staff were enthusiastic about the technological inroads made at the North Oakland middle school.
"We're going to reach out to people at Claremont to see how we can replicate this in other schools," he said.
Alvarado said he hopes district administrators will encourage innovation — and that they will back up their words with action. "I think we're preparing kids to be successful in the Bay Area," he said.
At his computer, Tyrone explained how he created the spaceship. Then he showed how he could make it move by making a quick calculation and pressing a few buttons.
"I doubted I'd be able to make this, but then I got a hang on it," he said.
A classmate who overheard Tyrone's remark laughed and said he sounded like a nerd.
Without skipping a beat, Tyrone set the record straight: "I'm not a nerd. I'm a geek."