PLEASANT HILL -- Students at College Park High School are changing the climate of their school -- one shutter speed at a time.
On a recent morning, freshman Adriana Uyehara, 15, views an image of a feather she captured, offset by a roughly textured baseball bench.
"Everybody is so different. It's the way they stand out, whether they're softer or harsher," she says, describing how her photograph illustrates the diversity of campus life.
She and fellow photography students have been called upon to document places at school that evoke a sense of unease, as well as areas that promote positive feelings.
Their compelling images will be featured in the Life as We Know It exhibit at the Pleasant Hill City Hall, with a reception Monday, March 3.
For junior Hailey Aliamus, an image of the school parking lot she took evokes feelings of loneliness, while capturing girls on the school's freshman soccer team embraced in a supportive huddle inspires good memories.
The school quad was a site that triggered feelings of judgment, consternation and discomfort, and was thus the location of senior Megan Berberich's least favorite spot.
Funded by a three-year Safe and Supportive Schools grant, the project is part of an intensive community effort to improve academic success at the school, by addressing the overall environment, including creating more opportunities for meaningful participation and caring relationships, says grant coordinator Carol Teltschick.
Megan saw the merits of the program.
"If the image of the school is changed, it would put me in a better mood and I'd want to learn more," she says.
"They're using photography more as a tool for change. They're actively documenting their opinions more cognitively," adds photography teacher Jennifer Kennedy. "This is a way to solidify their relationship with this campus."
The curriculum is in accordance with the San Diego-based AJA project that utilizes participatory photography as a means for war-torn refugee youth to heal from the loss they've endured by being displaced.
And while that angst may be more intense than the feelings experienced by these high school students, the young local photographers are chronicling their own experiences of not feeling safe.
"We know a picture is worth a thousand words," says Hilva Chan, an education program consultant with the California Department of Education. "This provides a much richer context about how students actually perceive the schools.
The assignment itself initially takes them out of their comfort zone."
"It's inspiring to approach students at this age with a new outlook, to show me what (they're) thinking. They aren't used to connecting an emotion with an image. It's a vulnerable thing," says Lauren Crew, a freelance photographer and an AJA Project teacher. "You take away the images and photography, and what we're building is confidence."
Gabby Correia, 16, felt that surge of inner strength from the moment she picked up a "point-and-shoot Nikon."
"I realized (photography) was a way to show your perspective. It made (me) feel powerful that I could show people what I saw," she says, noting that a photo of a math classroom illustrated her feelings of stress and anxiety.
The students will continue their creative efforts this spring, changing their focus from documenting the current climate to capturing ways they can make an impact on their school environment.
"It's a way for them to (further) connect that this is their place," says Kennedy.
WHAT: Life as We Know It student photography exhibit
WHEN: Reception 6-8 p.m., Monday, March 3; exhibit runs through March 14
WHERE: Pleasant Hill City Hall, 100 Gregory Lane