8th graders at REALM Charter school in Berkeley raised money for a library based on X-shaped, interlocking shelves which they designed themselves. Photo: Studio H

A Berkeley middle school’s successful campaign to crowd-fund the creation of its first library is one for the books.

Still in its infancy, REALM charter school was lacking a library, so its eighth grade class launched a Kickstarter campaign in March. In one month they raised the nearly $79,000 that will allow them to realize their innovative design for a room full of books and multimedia tools. Quest Foundation, a grant-making organization in Danville, contributed $30,000 in matching funds to the campaign.

The ultramodern library, called “X-Space,” is the product of months of brainstorming and building in teacher Hallie Chen’s design class, Studio H.

“Because we’re a new school, the instinct for students is to look around and say, ‘These are the things we don’t have yet,’” said REALM’s creativity director Emily Pilloton. “My response is always, ‘Okay, well, let’s go build it.’”

8th grade students at REALM build the “stax” style library shelves. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
8th grade students at REALM build the “stax” style library shelves. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Pilloton founded the design education nonprofit Project H in North Carolina in 2008, and oversees Studio H, its iteration at REALM. The student designers have previously built a classroom out of shipping containers and created laser-etched skateboards.

This year, the 8th graders were tasked with imagining the library of their dreams.

“The thing the kids kept saying is a library is a place to explore and to discover things you don’t know,” Pilloton said. Hence, the idea for X-Space, where “X” stands for the unknown – a concept the students recently studied in their math class.

The students designed the library’s shelves in keeping with this theme. The “stax” are a series of 13-ply finished plywood X’s that create a curvy shelving system when nailed together. Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk — a design, engineering, and entertainment software company — helped the students make prototypes and build the final X’s with his precise computer numerical controlled (CNC) machine. Berkeley resident Bass, whose shop is near REALM’s 8th Street and University Avenue middle school campus, has worked with the students on previous projects.

Following the successful campaign, the 8th graders are now installing 200-plus X’s in X-Space. The room was always intended to serve as a library, but shortages of time and money have left it empty until now.

X-Space is a manifestation of the students’ and administration’s desire to create a traditional library that can also function as a tech center and a cozy lounge, said middle school principal Luis Argueta.

Emily Pilloton: “If I tell 100 8th graders that we’re building a library, we’re for damn sure building a library.” Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Emily Pilloton: “If I tell 100 8th graders that we’re building a library, we’re for damn sure building a library.” Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“The idea was: How can we transform this into a very flexible space that can be all these things, and also engage the students?” Argueta said. “The kids are super invested in it because they can see the progress.”

“It’s not going to be the same as the other libraries I’ve seen, like the Berkeley library, because we’re trying to make it unique,” said 8th grader Leilani Gil. “We made a library so people can chill and learn and work on their homework, or just hang out.”

Her classmate Maribel Ramirez said she was happily surprised when they met their Kickstarter goal.

Pilloton, on the other hand, said she knew there was “no option for failure” when she launched the Kickstarter.

“If I tell 100 8th graders that we’re building a library, we’re for damn sure building a library, if I have to beg, borrow, or steal,” she said. Luckily such measures were not necessary, thanks to Project H’s wide network of supporters.

REALM has also garnered a group of advocates and repeat donors in the three years since it opened. The BUSD-approved charter opened its middle and high school campuses in the fall of 2011, amid optimism about its alternative, project-based curriculum — and amid concern that a charter school would drain funds from and re-segregate the district. The school, whose population is majority Latino English language learners, admits students from outside of Berkeley. Now at capacity, the middle school had to hold its first enrollment lottery last year, Argueta said.

The finished plywood “stax” were fabricated with the help of Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, at his shop in West Berkeley. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

If all goes as planned, REALM’s 8th graders will finish building the library before they go on summer vacation. The books will be ordered – likely from a company that curates student library collections – in the next couple months, and will be indexed and shelved over the summer, in time for a September grand opening.

By then, though, the library’s architects will be settling into their new classrooms at REALM’s high school campus in the old Berkeley Adult School building on University Avenue.

“We’ve been talking a lot about the designer-client relationship, how oftentimes as a designer/builder you don’t get to use or benefit from the thing you’re building, and that’s a really tough thing,” Pilloton said. “There’s a lot of socio-emotional stuff we’re trying to be really cognizant of. We want them to understand that the community that is left behind is going to use the library in their honor.”

But the students have plenty to look forward to in high school too. Next on Pilloton’s to-do list at that campus? A $10,000 solar home.

New program at REALM Charter School gets students’ hands dirty (08.29.12)
For REALM students it’s been a jazzy summer (08.15.12)
A matter of principal: meet Victor Diaz, head of Berkeley’s first charter school (07.02.10)

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...