Whose school is it?

Students at the William Dick Elementary School paint a mural

Walking into and around two of Philadelphia’s public schools recently, I got a sharp reminder of the barren oppressiveness communicated by bad, utilitarian architecture and unrelieved flat blacktop school yards.

But help is here–murals, art, color, more–or at least was here for 20 schools a year for the past three years. Alas, the program has been cut!!!! In a school district that has been excising art from the curriculum, art teacher by art teacher, school by school, this would be a counter-intuitive decision.


I stopped by a couple of school mural projects, one of them supported by the cut program, one of them supported by the Philadelphia Eagles, a program supporting the transformation of one school playground a year. Only the Eagles program will continue.

I know that not every mural that goes up on schools is a great work of art. But I have to say what these murals do is far reaching, affecting how the school relates to the community and children, and how the children think about themselves.

Aspiration, by Dennis Haugh, Judy McAnulla, and the students of Samuel H. Daroff Elementary School.
Aspiration, by Dennis Haugh, Judy McAnulla, and the students of Samuel H. Daroff Elementary School.

Yesterday, I stopped in at Samuel H. Daroff Elementary School in the neighborhood of Haddington; although the mural couldn’t quite overcome the Big Box architecture, it made the school more welcoming and colorful, plus you could see how proud the kids were and how much they learned in the course of working with muralists Dennis Haugh with Judy McAnulla. The silhouettes included in the mural were of some of the students in the school.


4th and 8th Grade mural artists at Samuel H. Daroff Elementary School
Exuberant 4th and 8th Grade mural artists at Samuel H. Daroff Elementary School, with artist Dennis Haugh behind them

The students most involved with the mural learned about the Harlem Renaissance work of Aaron Douglas and his use of silhouette figures inspired by African art; they learned about caryatids, color, stencils, cut paper, landscape, design, gridding to scale up the plan and more. The project is not yet complete, but it has already brought the children some art history and architectural history while improving with color and style the Soviet block of a building.

Plus the young artists came in on a weekend “community day” to move the work along so it was done enough in time for yesterday’s dedication ceremony. They learned the pleasure and reward of working hard.


Dennis Haugh with Judy McAnulla
The faux architectural details in parachute cloth that will be applied to the dreary lintel above Daroff’s main entrance. Other details to spruce up the entrance are patterns–the most vibrant part of the project, created by the students–and paintings of caryatids holding up the lintel.

The painted-on architectural details around the building’s doors send a very different message from the utilitarian building design–they say, you kids are worth it, and you can be powerful, like the caryatids that hold up the newly decorated lintel over the door of learning. These kids who participated are making a difference in their own lives and the lives of others in the school.

The mural itself, named Aspiration, is a retro salute to Aaron Douglas by way of Maxfield Parrish. The new one raises eyes above the Philadelphia skyline. As artist Dennis Haugh was talking to me, he said he was sorry they didn’t name the painting Haddington Renaissance!

The students at William Dick Elementary School are painting a two-block-long mural around the playground while people from the Philadelphia Eagles organization lay an Eagles logo in the center of synthetic turf that just went down on part of the playground.

The week before I visited William Dick Elementary School in Strawberry Mansion, which got a whole playground resurrection thanks to the Philadelphia Eagles’ annual Eagles Playground Build. For a full day, the Eagles organization was out there in full force (the players came later in the day) giving the playground a face lift that included a large new climbing structure with padding underneath, benches, chess tables, bricked areas, and a large swatch of artificial turf for games that require it.

Simultaneously, students were painting an enormous mural that ran two blocks long along the playground edge. Another mural rose up on one of the building walls. Some murals were also going up inside the building. The entire student body was out there for this major face lift, and their energy was sky high. The Eagles themselves were an inspiration. But so was the painting.

Students on scaffolding at Dick School laying color in paint-by-numbers style

The subject matter of the murals was dreams (what looked like a portrait of Martin Luther King was incorporated in the tall wall mural). All around the school yard were paintings of the students dreams, all woven into a coherent whole by monster-scale muralist David McShane. Older kids were painting up on the scaffolding and younger artists were working at ground level.

The scale of the project was amazing, the coordination involved overwhelming, and all I could think was not only will these kids have the benefit of color and the pride of authorship; they will have learned how to get a lot done. I didn’t stay to see the final product, which looked like it was going to be exuberant. But if can-do, educated kids are the final product, I saw them, and they looked great and proud and invested in the world around them, each and every one of them learning to be a citizen of the future.

This is the sort of thing that has been cut out of the School District’s budget.
For more pictures of what was going on at these schools, visit my Flickr set here.

For more of our outrage on the subject, (in the order in which they were posted), go here, here and here.