One day, not long ago, Principal Evelyn Nuńez counted 182 syringes surrounding Lewis Elkin Elementary School. She then went door to door in the Kensington neighborhood and asked residents to respect the school zone, to keep the blue zone safe. Before long, the zone was syringe-free.
Since then graffiti and profanity blemish the walls of many local buildings, but not the blue zone around the elementary school. And last May, the walls of Elkin received a different kind of graphic art. Nuńez believes vandalism will not be a problem for Elkins now that color has returned to the school in the form of a 10,000 square foot vibrant new mural.
“A mural is a symbol that this is a safe space, a place not to be touched, that this is for children,” Nuñez described her enthusiasm for the project last year. “I trust that people will know to protect the blue zone.”
Every year, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program teams up with the Eagles Youth Partnership community outreach program to give back to an underrepresented school in Philadelphia. David McShane, chief project artist, together with the Philadelphia School District, chose Elkins for the 2017 project because of its high percentage of low-income students, measured by the number of children receiving free or reduced-cost lunch. The school improvements included a new playground set, an “Art Stars” club, and one colossal mural — including historical figures and designs representative of the Kensington community.
McShane chose the Elkins school motto, SOAR (Safe-Orderly-Attentive-Respectful), for the project theme. He then spent three months designing the mural. But he did not work alone. The most important aspect of of the Mural Arts Program is direct student involvement. The 900 K-4 children in Elkins were asked to draw three things:
1) What do you want to be when you grow up?
2) What do you want your new playground to look like?
3) What objects fly and move forward? Maybe a bird, a rocket, yourself with a cape!
“If you have glasses, draw yourself with glasses. If you have braids, draw your braids. If you like to wear a particular shirt, or shoes, or hat, draw those things too! Draw you!” McShane encouraged the children.
“Young kids are abundantly creative and much more unfettered” than adults, he explains. “If we don’t use their drawing directly, a lot of times we incorporate ideas from what they give us.”
La musica Reggaeton danced in several of the bilingual classes as students tapped their feet, asked one another for advice on their drawings, and ran to Mr. Dave to ask him if he liked their work.
“I want to be a veterinarian!”
“I want to be a teacher!”
“I want to be a football player!”
“I like my new glasses!” One young girl drew herself standing on top of a large owl with a bow on its head. “Owls are my favorite animals.”
One young boy, the class artist, according to his teacher and peers, was having an artist’s block. “I don’t know what to draw!”
“He’s the best artist of the class,” his friends giggled.
With the mural’s completion, the kids now have a piece of their work embedded in something that will last forever.
May 17th was kick-off day for the project. The surface ready, design laid out, the painting could begin. The entire student body got the opportunity to paint side by side with the Eagles football team, the Mural Arts staff, and local volunteers. Eagles Day is more than just a messy day of painting; it’s an event that demonstrates the love of an entire community. The community involvement has tangible results, promoting positive behavior, cooperation, and commitment. The design participation teaches the children about identity and ownership, important lessons known to lead to confidence, educational success, and a brighter future.
“Twenty years from now,” McShane says as he looks at the bright-eyed crowd of tiny people, “you can still look at your mural, at all the work you’ve done, and you can see whose beautiful drawings belong to who.”
School is a safe zone where children learn to embrace their hard work and, as McShane likes to say, “flex their artistic muscles.” It’s a place where young people get their start, where, given a chance, they can soar.
Jonida Kupa is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in biology and minoring in creative writing.Photo via Safe Kids Stories