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By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent

Creekside High School teacher Walt Williams landed in a bit of hot water recently for his teaching methods – but nothing the longtime educator couldn’t use as a real-life lesson for his students.

Now when someone mentions the First Amendment, Creekside teens will use their teacher as an example.

During a weeklong display mixing public art and social responsibility, Williams overlooked one step in sharing his students’ art – he failed to seek permission for two installments on the grounds of Sonoma Valley High School.

Creekside, an alternative high school within the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, is tucked into a tiny corner of the larger Sonoma Valley High School campus.

Although small, last week Creekside was larger than life as students erected art installments designed for both conversation and controversy.

The school’s three teachers and 40 students worked across the curriculum to present “Better Out Than In – Sonoma,” a take on British street artist and political activist Banksy’s controversial month-long spray art show last fall on the streets of New York City.

Rather than just reading, writing and reciting facts about activism and social responsibility, the students focused on engaging their community.

To make a point about trash and pollution, they stuffed a dozen trash bags with newspapers and piled them on the banks of Nathanson Creek that runs along the rear of the Sonoma Valley High School campus – the spot where Creekside students have collected 1,500 bags of garbage during the past 14 years of weekly creek cleanup efforts.

And across a vacant plot where the Sonoma Valley High School Dragons and community members once swam, towering wooden letters painted blue spelled out “P-O-O-L.”

The pool was filled in back in 2005 when costly repairs were needed, much to the disappointment of many in a town without a public swimming pool. The feasibility of replacing the pool is under consideration.

Although students hoped their daily art installations would remain up throughout the week, Williams’ oversight brought two of them down overnight.

It also brought a phone call from the district superintendent.

“She appreciated my idea but sometimes I get ahead of the ship,” Williams said.

The teacher did get advance permission for several other installments that stayed up for the duration: a Star of David remembering the Holocaust outside a local mortgage company; a large painting of President Barack Obama outside a popular skateboard shop near the high school that questioned First Amendment rights; and a giant-sized replica of the Creekside logo created with chalk outside the school.

By week’s end, Williams was confident the project was a success, even with the inquiry from his boss.

“That’s the whole goal. It’s all a big ol’ lesson,” he said.

“If we’re turning kids on and if people are talking and we’re controversial, then that’s good, too.”

The highlight, Williams said, was getting students involved and letting them know they can reach others and make a difference in their community.

Many of the students who attend Creekside “don’t fit down the narrow pathway” of traditional high schools, Williams said.

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Some have had issues of truancy or drug use, some lack motivation, others are dealing with complex personal issues and yet others simply prefer the smaller school environment. Five students are teen mothers.

For 16-year-old Alexa Stephens, the project was a way to let the community know that Creekside engages students – teens who are as capable as their peers in traditional high schools.

“They say it’s a school for people who have messed up and aren’t good at school or are troublemakers,” Alexa said. “We’re not as bad as the community thinks we are.”

Williams and fellow teachers Shireen Ellis and Rosemarie Green have been leading a series of four-week, cross-curricular units since January that include classroom instruction, research, reports, field trips, projects and community interaction, a process Williams calls “reality-based learning.”

The units include hands-on studies that blend math, English, history, biology, economics, art and social responsibility.

When students studied fracking, the unit ended at the Sonoma Plaza with a protest of the hydraulic fracturing practice.

Creekside Vice Principal Sydney Smith said students not only learn through academics but also by sharing their voices in the community.

“These are kids who have been marginalized or felt marginalized for a long time,” she said. “Having them participate in something makes them feel a part of the community and that’s a wonderful thing.

“It gives them a real sense of what it’s like to have a voice in their community,” Smith said.

Mireya Mendoza, 17, was proud to share her message of environmentalism with other students and community members who saw the brief installment of garbage bags at Nathanson Creek.

Tossing a water bottle or candy wrapper into the creek may not seem like a big thing, Mireya said, but it is.

“People think it’s harmless, that nothing’s going to happen, that it’s just a piece of trash but it’s not,” she said.

Mireya and her cousin Mayra Herrera, 17, created a poster showing the cycle of a plastic water bottle tossed into the local creek and traveling to the ocean.

They’re hopeful the “1,500 Bags of Trash” installation will get others to think about their message.

“If we’re just going to do it in (the classroom) then no one’s going to know about it,” Mireya said.

To further promote environmentalism, students held a plant giveaway on May Day, offering 150 sunflowers, zinnias, morning glories and herbs.

The units also have included projects on smaller scales but also with significant messages.

After studying the Holocaust Day of Remembrance, students created memorial models that had personal meaning.

Elizabeth Escobar, 18, created a school with a memorial paying tribute to her cousins, ages 11, 12 and 13, who were fatally shot in Mexico City outside their campus.

Alexa Stephens was moved by the Holocaust but chose to memorialize victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima at the end of World War II.

The project gave her an opportunity for reflection.

It’s important, Alexa said, “so we can remember what was done to other human beings and how cruel we can be.”

Williams is hopeful the experience – and the message – will have a continued impact on Creekside students.

“Then that’s a victory,” he said.

To learn more about Creekside High School, visit creeksidehs.org.

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