Mario Chiodo was 12 years old in 1973 when he met Kathryn Porter on the first day of school at Renaissance Junior High in Oakland. Porter, one of the school’s founding teachers, asked him, “If you could do anything you want, what would it be?”
“I’d love to sculpt,” Chiodo said.
Porter placed a clay brick in front of him and said, “Go at it.”
Today, Chiodo is a renowned artist who has created notable sculptures across the Bay Area and the country. One of his monuments, titled “Remember Them: Champions for Humanity,” stands at Henry J. Kaiser Memorial Park in downtown Oakland.
Chiodo isn’t the only artist to have gotten a start at Renaissance Art School, a public middle and high school that operated near Laney College in the 70s and 80s with a curriculum centered around the arts. Many of its graduates went on to art careers, while others became business owners, teachers, writers, lawyers, or therapists.
On Saturday, dozens of the school’s alumni gathered for a reunion at Porter’s home in West Oakland to reminisce about their teenage years and celebrate their accomplishments in the 40 or 50 years since they’d attended school together.
Hollyce Jeffriess was a student in the school’s pilot class in 1972. She had been attending McChesney Junior High School (renamed Edna Brewer in honor of a former principal in 1989), where she said she was “falling through the cracks.” Like many of the students who attended Renaissance, Jeffriess found the school to be a haven that encouraged her creativity in ways that traditional schools didn’t.
“It was like I had come home,” she said. “It opened up a whole world of possibilities of what life could be, the beauty of life, and the pursuit of beauty and art.”
Jeffriess made her career in clothing design, including working as a costume designer in Hollywood. Today she works as a fabric and textile artist.
Porter, who hosted the reunion, co-founded the Renaissance Art School in 1972 with the goal of training young artists and cultivating their skills in painting, cartooning, fashion, sculpting, or other visual media, while also offering a well-rounded education in math, science, history, and philosophy.
“We wrote the curricula every year anew and we’d pick a subject like the Renaissance or Picasso or some other subject matter, into which we would weave reading and writing skills, math, science, and art lessons,” Porter said.
Saturday was the first time in decades that many of the school’s former students had seen each other in person. As they dined on grilled chicken, potato salad, and chips and salsa, group members marveled at their middle school photos hung on the wall, asked about classmates they hadn’t kept in touch with, and lamented the loss of the school.
Newspaper archives don’t reveal when the school was closed, but a state schools database shows it shuttered on June 30, 1989. Newspaper records from the 1970s indicate the school was once the target of budget cuts, and that its middle school once served around 125 students. The school was housed in portables on Third Avenue near the district’s former headquarters.
Marcus Foster, the former OUSD superintendent, was a big supporter of the school, Porter said. As Oakland’s first Black superintendent, Foster championed integration and bilingual education in OUSD and founded the Oakland Education Institute—since renamed the Marcus Foster Insitute—one year after the Renaissance School’s launch, to raise money for Oakland education initiatives. When he was assassinated in 1973 by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the school community was devastated.
“We used what we knew to create an environment that encouraged your self-confidence, whether it was in a sailboat on Lake Merritt or at a potter’s wheel,” Porter said to her former students on Saturday. “Marc [Foster] was my mentor. Once he was assassinated—a great tragedy—we were all bereft.”
Renee Thorpe also attended Renaissance from 1972 to 1974, for eighth and ninth grade. Thorpe became a writer as an adult but she loved drawing comics, and she and Jeffriess formed a lifelong friendship as teens.
“It’s important to have a group of peers who understands you. Just like we have magnet schools for really talented science kids, there should be magnet schools for art kids,” she said. “It was really diverse, and at the same time, everybody was aligned with their love of art, and that’s what made for a really great environment.”