tank boys paint school
Javier Rosillo and Christopher Martinez with their rainwater harvesting tank.

Dressed in work boots and gray hoodies, Javier Rosillo and Christopher Martinez Espinoza, seniors at John O’Connell Technical High School, walked guests out into the sunlit schoolyard on a recent Wednesday, making their way toward a 2,500-gallon tank brightly painted with butterflies and handprints. 

The massive tank was brimming with rainwater from the recent storms, part of the pair’s joint rainwater harvesting system they built over the past year.

“So, this is an inch pipe, and this is gonna run 38 feet, all the way over there,” said Rosillo, pointing to a small garden, where peach and pomegranate trees and sunflowers grow at the rear of the schoolyard, along Harrison Street. Thanks to Rosillo and Martinez’s handiwork, the tank will be the garden’s main source of water.

Every April, the 130-odd seniors at John O’Connell in the Mission present a final project called a capstone, the culmination of two years’ work within each student’s area of study, known as a pathway. 

Parents, peers, teachers, school district staff and guests are invited to attend the presentations as quasi-judges, while getting a taste of what O’Connell kids are learning.

“I got really into the plumbing when I saw this,” said Javier. His dad, a construction worker, loaned him some steel-toed boots for the project. Espinoza was drawn to pipe-fitting, a skilled trade of its own.

The two seniors led guests back to the garden, where a group of kids lingering under the trees scattered. Do the peaches taste good? Rosillo picked one up off the ground, scrunching his face. “I don’t know if it’s edible,” he laughed. 

Woodwork and Tesla batteries

Chris Wood, lead instructor for the Building and Construction Trades Pathway, has made a point to center sustainability in students’ projects. His shop is just off the main building of the school, a bright, lively room full of high-grade lathes, bandsaws, drill presses and the craft work of students from his past 10 years at O’Connell. 

A main focus for all the pathways is on helping students become employable. Wood has an agreement with the Carpenters Local 22 union to secure apprenticeships for a number of students every year. He’s hoping to get a contract with the Electricians Local 6 union in the future. Guests of capstones usually include professionals within the fields students are studying.

girl concrete shop
Fresia Dima with the base of the table she built.

“The goal of capstones is to provide opportunities for career exposure,” said Marisa Varalli, a teacher with Career and Technical Education. “Ideally, the capstone is the presentation of learning from a couple of years of experiences, like field trips, guest speakers, internships, work-based learning experiences and job shadowing.”

Senior Heidi Mora planned and built a Carnaval float for Loco Bloco, a dance company based in the Mission. Every year, Wood’s students make at least one float for the weekend-long festival, which is coming up May 27 and 28.

Mora’s float, which spans a breathtaking 30-by-8-feet, is based on the love story of two warriors. “Spiritual warriors with special powers,” she told the crowd, giggling nervously. “They are lovers, and have to be close to each other on the float. They fight in the air, in storms and tornadoes.” 

Ben Williams, an enthusiast of electronics who enjoys taking apart Tesla batteries from scorched Burning Man cars and building drones in his room, brought guests to a tiny home behind Wood’s shop.

Ben Williams with his solarized tiny home.

The home was part of someone’s project years ago, he said. “For some reason, when they built this, they built it with four windows and a glass door. Guess how fast that got broken into,” Ben laughed, pointing at the graffiti-covered structure. “I said to Mr. Wood, ‘let me set up some solar on the tiny house.’”

“I do a lot of my own electrical stuff. I build a lot of junk. I rode here on an electric motorcycle that I made. It goes, like, 70. Pretty sweet.” Next year, Williams heads to City College of San Francisco for electrical engineering. Walking back to the shop, one guest, an engineering professional, urged Williams to keep in touch; there’s solar work waiting for him in Colorado if he wants it.

Carbs and grills

Between capstone presentations, guests lined up for free espresso and matcha lattes at the school’s student-run cafe on the first floor, part of the Culinary Arts Pathway. It seemed to be a favorite; students bustled in the kitchen’s aisles, chatting and laughing as reggaeton played from a speaker. Two seniors pulled shots with gusto as capstone-goers chatted in line.

Entrepreneurship and Culinary Arts Pathway teacher Alexandria Brooks, known as Chef Brooks, had this year’s students making Creole food and southern cuisine. A big emphasis of the program is on the history and culture around different foods. Earlier in the semester, Chef Brooks took the class to Jelly Donut on 24th to talk with owners about their business.

“There’s a lot of carbs,” laughed Sabeena Shah, an English teacher who shares the Entrepreneurship pathway with Brooks. “They’ve made pan de muerto, beignets, challah. A lot of students are reporting that they cook at home more because of the program.”

One of Shah’s students, who goes by Rooster, was inspired by his family’s business on Mission Street, Jaime’s Jewelry, to build a mock business called Rougerz Goldz, a store dedicated exclusively to gold necklaces, rings and grills.

student presentation
Oriah Renner-St. Clair discussing global homelessness.

“I’ve always had an entrepreneur mindset,” said Rooster, who loves jewelry and wears gold necklaces and a grill. “My experience of capstones was great.” 

Rooster went on to explain that, due to housing instability, his attendance at the school is pretty low, and capstones helped him have a consistent focus throughout the last two years

“It’s really beneficial, in a way, because you can gauge the ins and outs of opening a business. There’s a lot of work and research being done.” 

Shah agreed. Along with planning, a ton of research and writing skills are required to complete a capstone, which she said is especially good for the school’s English Language Learners. 

More than 90 percent of students at O’Connell are Latinx, Black, Asian and Filipinx, and 75 percent are considered unduplicated pupils — that is, students who are in foster care, English Language Learners, or who qualify for free lunch. 

With O’Connell’s emphasis on project-based learning, said Shah, more of these students are able to navigate different subjects, while capstones expose them to potential careers, a model unique to the school. At other schools, more traditional classrooms might keep the same student disconnected from their studies.

Back in the shop, Chris Wood proudly pointed to a stack of cypress wood harvested from the forest that once covered the Presidio.

Using a huge slab of the cypress, Fresia Dima built a modern, five-foot-long table for the school library, a special request from Ms. Moskowitz, O’Connell’s librarian, who wanted to spruce things up.

“A table like this would cost thousands of dollars,” said Dima, who wants to be a maternity nurse. Even as a nurse, Dima said she’d use her new skill. To save some money in the future, “I will be able to make a table for myself,” she beamed.

The 10-minute rule

A few rooms over, for instructor Christian Escobar’s Entrepreneurship Pathway, Jesus Gonzalez introduced himself as the founder and CEO of Quickness, which produces a small, timed device to be hung around students’ necks that tracks the wearer’s bathroom time. “An effort to make schools a safer place starts in the bathroom,” Gonzalez told his audience. 

He invented Quickness to address a common problem  at O’Connell: Students taking too long in the bathroom. 

“I want to lower the amount of vaping, tagging and loitering that happens in school bathrooms,” Gonzalez told his guests. Which means they’re likely taking “excessive time” in the facilities. 

Quickness is timed for the 10-minute bathroom limit set by O’Connell. When time’s up, a “radio frequency” is transmitted to admin, effectively so someone could intervene and send the student back to class.

girl presentation screen classroom
Heidi Mora shows how she drafted plans for her Carnaval float, to be presented this at this year’s festival.

After 10 minutes, the Quickness buzzer will vibrate and flash a light. “A lot of Gen Zs don’t like when a timer hits zero,” said Gonzalez. On a personal level, he said that having to “hold it” has impacted his education and health, since only one student is allowed to leave class for the bathroom at a time.

“There are times when there’s an important subject in class, and I have to use the bathroom. I ask the teacher, and they say, ‘there’s someone in the bathroom, so wait a moment.’”

The proposal includes connecting Quickness devices with school security cameras. “It would lower the amount of people — I don’t want to say suspects — who could have tagged up the bathroom.”

“If you gotta go, go with Quickness,” Gonzalez quipped.

Hearts and homelessness

Upstairs in Room 303, Mirna Paniagua gave a presentation on the causes and treatments of cardiovascular disease. She said the health issue runs deep in her own family.

“It feels like some diseases aren’t really spoken about until someone has the disease already, and are at high risk.”

“I’ve had family members suffer from this, and I wanted to learn about it,” she said. Her family members need to “go easy on themselves,” she said. 

“They’re focused on money, while their bodies are going to waste.” Paniagua proposed a free clinic for people who were too afraid to go to a hospital — that, and dabbling in transcendental meditation, a subject the capstone guests were eager to learn more about.

Across the hall, in Room 309, Oriah Renner-St. Clair stood in front of a whiteboard with a button-down shirt and tie. 

For his Health and Behavioral Sciences Pathway, Renner-St. Clair asked the question: How are homelessness and mental health related, and what support can be provided to homeless people with a mental illness? 

He decided the topic of his project from his observations growing up nearby, off Folsom. 

“I don’t know if you saw, Tim,” Renner-St. Clair said, gesturing into the audience to his dad, Tim, sitting in the front row. “But on our block on 19th, there’s a tent usually set up in the corner where the roadblock is. It’s really quite harrowing to see, coming to school.”

Renner-St. Clair pointed out that rates of homelessness among Black and Pacific Islander populations far outpace those of white populations in the United States. 

“Part of why this is so appalling to me is, there’s so many people suffering, but nothing effectively being done about it.”

Housing first, or mental health first? Oriah asked: But why not both? He proposed a two-pronged solution, a model of which has been successfully carried out in Salt Lake City. “Construct communities for the homeless that provide access to drug and alcohol recovery, temporary jobs and skill training using a housing first model and housing to reintegrate them into society,” he said excitedly, summarizing his findings.

“Homelessness is not as complicated to provide solutions for as government powers make it out to be.” 

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Reporter/Intern. Griffin Jones is a writer born and raised in San Francisco. She formerly worked at the SF Bay View and LA Review of Books.

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  1. I’m not that old, but I’m plenty cynical. And every time I talk to or hear from high school students about things they are excited about/interested in, it’s SUCH a breath of fresh air. O’Connell’s capstone and career track program is very cool, and this is a great profile. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Great! Kudos to O’Connell’s teachers and students.

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