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Packing-tape sculptures bring dinosaurs to life at Northeast middle school

For 13-year-old Abdul Maaf, building the 16-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that stands in his school's atrium was a straightforward process.

Using a teacher's cardboard cutout as a model, he wrapped packing tape around objects from mason jars to doorknobs to shape the dinosaur's bones, then taped the pieces together.

"We just kept going around until it got sturdy," said Abdul, a seventh-grade student at C.C.A. Baldi Middle School in Philadelphia's Bustleton section.

The 9-foot-tall T. rex -- built nearly entirely out of packing tape -- was recently installed in the public area where most of the school's roughly 1,200 students pass through each day, after months of work by Abdul and classmate Justin Thomas. By the school year's end, a pterodactyl-pteranodon hybrid created by three other students will join the T. rex, hanging from the ceiling as if in flight.

The students are working under the direction of art teacher Bill Mathes, who wanted to liven up the public space. Since December, the kids have worked on the dinosaurs nearly daily, during lunch and Mathes' free periods, sometimes heading to the art room after completing their work in other classes.

The project also showcases the arts at a time when the cash-strapped Philadelphia School District is struggling to fund its schools' basic needs.

Mathes, who has taught in the district for eight years, including three at Baldi, says his administrators are supportive, though teachers have to buy a lot of their own supplies, particularly for projects outside normal class time.

"You have to be creative on your own," he said.

So the dinosaurs were built out of a hodgepodge of materials: Mostly tape, plus some PVC pipes, newspaper and wires and rods found in another teacher's closet. The students building the pterodactyl ran out of tape one day, but scrounged up some cheetah-print duct tape from one girl's locker to continue.

When Mathes described the project, the students knew they were in for a challenge. After the teacher described how the tail should look -- slightly curved, with spikes -- "we were like, 'oh my gosh, how are we going to do that?'" Abdul said.

Justin said the project taught him to think outside the box. The boys struggled a bit with the spine, eventually stuffing it with newspaper so the structure would keep its shape.

"We had to keep putting stuff in there," Abdul said.

The pterodactyl team -- sixth-graders Sasha Stefankiv, Gareema Kankeshwar and Kiyanna Mosley -- has also had challenges. They first tried to use pillowcases, but "the wings kept looping down," Sasha said, leading the group to switch to more solid materials.

The students have enjoyed having their work displayed for the rest of the school, and the girls are anxious to paint their dinosaur -- they're planning on using green, brown, orange and yellow -- and show it off. They sometimes seemed surprised by their success.

Gareema at first thought the pterodactyl's head might be too lumpy. But, she said, "It actually came out really nice."

Abdul didn't think the T. rex would turn out so big.

"It's crazy that only me, Justin and Mr. Mathes were working on it," he said.