Main corridor of Rockaway Park High Scholl for Environmental Sustainability, as imagined by Tianlan Deng. (Renderings courtesy of the artist.)

At his daily coronavirus update on Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said that he plans to “reimagine” education in New York public schools.

“When we’re reopening schools, let’s open a better school, and let’s open a smarter education system,” he said. To do so, the state will partner with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to figure out how to best utilize technology in education, specifically in the realm of virtual learning. “We now have a moment in history where we can actually incorporate and advance those ideas.”

Tianlan Deng, an artist from Shanghai, has been exploring these ideas since last year. He’s working on an innovative plan to transform the prison-like environment of New York City’s public schools.

Entrance area.

A year ago, Deng, who came to the United States in 2013, became aware of the national trend that criminal justice reform advocates refer to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The trend began in the 1980s, when national anxiety about drugs and shootings led to a “zero tolerance” approach to school discipline. Schools began outsourcing discipline to juvenile courts and police officers, and academic trouble often led to a first encounter with the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, an emphasis on safety led to schools increasingly looking and feeling like prisons. The presence of officers, security guards, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras began causing intimidating and even humiliating effects on students’ psyches. 

Enter Deng, who spent 20 years experiencing the “deindividualized process” of studying in China. “As a designer and as an artist, I think my shoulder should carry some kind of weight in society,” he told us. 

Lounge area at the entrance.

Since the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Rockaway Park High School has been part of the national debate around police presence on campus. Nearly 80 percent of the 300 students are black and Hispanic, and 59 percent of them come from low-income families. Amidst the yellow lockers, posters and bulletin boards typical of a public school, there are police officers, School Safety Agents, and security infrastructure. 

In an article, Andrea Colon, a 2018 graduate who now studies economics at Baruch College, described the high school as having a “prison-like feeling.” She referred to the metal detectors and security scanners students had to go through every day upon entering the building, the armed security presence in the hallway, and the heavy-handed treatment of students when they were suspected of misconduct.

It was Rockaway High School that offered Deng a tour of the campus, after he reached out to 20 other schools about his Master’s thesis.

Security entrance.

Having witnessed the school’s security system and talked to parent coordinator Teresa Damelio, Deng realized that the school’s heavy security presence and lack of budget support had lowered the quality of learning and the graduation rate, leading to even lower funding. He decided to approach the issue from an architectural perspective.  Hoping that students’ “experience when going through security will be welcoming and optimized,” he proposed adding hanging panels, translucent stanchions and lounge waiting areas at the entrance.

In the auditorium, he proposed making use of the upper space of the theater by installing demountable industrial catwalks and controllable, translucent hanging sheets on the ceiling. When the auditorium is not in use, teachers would be able to remove a minimal number of seats, put in the catwalks, roll down the sheets and project media onto them. Through the cut-out shapes that resemble a human body, students can walk through and in between the sheets, read and watch the displays. 

The sheets will be installed in various ways and orders, optimal for classes of different sizes, such as lectures and seminars. The linear panels are ideal for logic-based courses like math, or narrative-based courses like history. The overlapped panels can be used to teach natural science. In some way, it mimics a digital field trip that creates a “vivid learning experience,” Deng said.


Overall, Deng aimed to “create a comfortable and inspirational environment for students. Bring curiosity, beauty, and playfulness to enlighten and heal students in poverty.”

Due to the pandemic, Deng’s presentation to Rockaway Park High School has been postponed. But he plans to resume the process as soon as the school opens back up. The installation, he explained, will cost approximately $10,000, covered by grants and at no cost to the school. Ideally, it will last five months.

“I believe technology makes a real difference,” Deng said. “And I believe that design makes a voice heard.”