Graffiti in schools: how one principal embraced street art

On the verge of closing after dismal results, one US school revived pupils’ enthusiasm for learning using graffiti
1st March 2019, 12:04am
How One School Used Graffiti To Fire Up Pupils' Imaginations


Graffiti in schools: how one principal embraced street art

Historically, graffiti has been viewed as a scourge by school leaders. If any appears on their grounds, it is usually treated as an offence and scrubbed out or painted over, lest it inspire others to ape their peers and pick up a spray can. And those graffiti artists caught daubing their tags on walls are often severely punished in order to discourage them from doing so again.

But could schools have called it wrong? Rather than a sign of ill-discipline and rebellion, is graffiti actually a positive force for change?

That’s what April Thompson-Williams, principal of Jose De Diego Middle School, in the Wynwood district of Miami, believes. She actively encourages graffiti on the walls of the school and her radical approach has been truly transformative, both in terms of the appearance of the school and its academic achievements. What’s more, Thompson-Williams believes other schools can similarly benefit if they take the same approach (not necessarily by embracing graffiti, but the thinking underpinning the initiative).

Thompson-Williams was a rookie principal when she took the reins at the school in February 2014. The sight that greeted her arrival on the grounds was “uninviting”. Not only did the buildings look tired, but admission numbers were dwindling and, academically, the school - located in an area with high levels of poverty - was failing. It was drifting between a D and F rating on the academic grading system (A being the highest rating and F being the lowest).

“This school was not a favourite school in the community,” remembers Thompson-Williams. “[Aspirational] people did not send their children to this school. We have five charter schools [semi-autonomous public schools that receive public funds] in the local area and so those were the places that people would send their children to because the kids [at this school] were not deemed as kids who were going to be productive in society.”

Arriving midway through a school year made it hard for Thompson-Williams to work out what was going wrong, and to fix on a strategy to get things back on track. But what the Miami native was familiar with was the local area because she had passed through it regularly as a child.

She was acutely aware that while the school was situated in a run-down area, just a few blocks away was Wynwood Walls - an outdoor art gallery featuring murals produced by some of the best graffiti artists in the world.

Over the past few years, the art has spilled out of the gallery and onto the streets surrounding Wynwood Walls. Subsequently, the area has become a major visitor attraction; with the tourists has come a slew of trendy bars, restaurants, shops and significant levels of property development, which has radically changed the area.

But that transformation hadn’t reached as far as Jose De Diego. So Thompson-Williams decided that if the school was going to prosper, it should better reflect the community in which it was based, and the increased wealth in the area should contribute to the school’s development. Graffiti seemed the way in, but her ambitions were small to begin with.

“One day, I ran into a couple of artists in the area and I started talking to Robert de los Rius, who was responsible for WynwoodMap [an online guide to graffiti art in Wynwood]. I invited them to the school and I said, ‘listen, I just need one mural’. When they walked into the school, they turned around and looked at me and I’m looking at them, and I thought something was wrong. And they said, ‘are you sure you want just one mural?’”

Heralding a landmark

Instead of delivering a single painting, the artists proposed doing a series of murals at the school. And then they went even further: during their visit, Thompson-Williams had shown them the art rooms, which had all the latest equipment even though, at the time, the school didn’t have an art teacher or art programme.

“They said, would you be interested in bringing back your art programme and what would it take financially?” she recalls. Of course she would like to, she replied, but explained that the financial undertaking would be huge.

Undeterred, the two parties launched a fundraising drive to help pay for it; the artists started to speak with people in the graffiti community to gauge their willingness to provide their time and skills for free.

Over the course of 2014, the project, which was christened RAW (Reimagining the Arts in Wynwood), started to take shape. Around Thanksgiving that year, artists were regularly coming into the school to work on their murals. Soon, the dilapidated, uncared-for buildings became gallery walls showcasing the work of some of the world’s leading street artists. The art that had transformed the streets of the local community had finally transformed the school, too.

A grand unveiling of the initial pieces of work was held in early December 2014 to coincide with Art Basel - a major global art fair held annually in Miami.

“A lot of the private galleries actually closed that day and sent their patrons over to us,” says Thompson-Williams. The reception to the murals was overwhelmingly positive and encouraged Thompson-Williams to continue the project; to date, nearly 100 murals have been painted at the school and many more are planned.

Thompson-Williams says the school is now referred to as the “mural school”. She explains that the artworks have given the school an identity, shown that people are willing to invest in it, reflected the children’s local community, and also brought to light that the school and pupils are valued. It is no longer a forgotten, unloved corner of the district. And that, she says, makes a huge difference.

“We are deemed one of the best middle schools for kids because we offer them opportunity and we take more of an approach of ‘I love my school and I love being at my school and I love who I am’,” she says. “That’s like our slogan now - living our best life every day, you know? So we embrace the children that come in through the door, no matter what, and we don’t take into account the area they’ve come from. We hug, love and teach them.”

The fundraising efforts proved successful and enabled Thompson-Williams to reintroduce an art programme to the school. She has capped it at 50 pupils per intake. Although they are learning things that you would find on a conventional art curriculum, street art is a key part of the course. “The goal here is to make the programme different to the other programmes that exist in [Miami] Dade County public schools,” says Thompson-Williams. “The focus is more on giving them a partnership and connecting the opportunities of what they could do if they chose to make this [art] their career, while also having the opportunity to explore what professionals do on a level that they were not previously aware of.”

As such, the emphasis isn’t just on creating the next generation of street artists or photographers, but also on learning the business side of the art world.

“The kids here are not limited to just understanding art from the perspective of talent,” says Thompson-Williams. “You may not want to be an artist or you might not have the talent to be an artist, but you may want to go into the business side. So we look at it from the perspective of a person who owns a gallery, how to curate and how to go and find gallery space.”

To this end, pupils on the art programme have been creating and curating content with QR codes that are placed alongside each of the school’s murals. “So if you scan the QR code, a video will come up that explains a little bit about the artist who created the mural, about their background and why they did what they did,” she explains.

Painting a new future

This year, Thompson-Williams says a couple of students on the programme will also produce murals on the walls for the first time, alongside a piece created by an 11-year-old artist from the Bahamas, discovered by members of staff during a service project in the Caribbean island.

This won’t be the first time that work produced by students on the school’s revived art programme has gone on public display. Last year, photographs taken by three students were featured on the American Airlines concourse at Miami Airport.

“The way they see through the lens is beautiful,” reflects Thompson-Williams. “I mean, I was just amazed at some of the pieces they did.”

The focus on creating an identity in the community - not to mention being valued by that community - along with the introduction of practical, vocational lessons, has had a huge impact. When Thompson-Williams became principal, the school had 525 students and numbers were falling. Today, 900 are enrolled. Academic results have also improved significantly. “We are now a C and we were a C last year, so we’re maintaining,” she says.

She has also been amazed by the traction RAW has gained since the project was launched. Thanks to RAW, artists have already produced 33 murals at the local Eneida M Hartner elementary school in Miami and the project is also being rolled out to schools in the Denver area; to reflect this, the acronym RAW now stands for “Reimagining the Arts in the World”.

Thompson-Williams says she essentially acts as an educational consultant for the organisation, which has been contacted by numerous schools and organisations from around the world who are interested in embracing this unique approach.

She explains: “RAW uses me as a sounding board or it gets me to conference-call into people who may want a little bit more information about ‘what is this going to do for me and how is this impacting on education?’”

The school is proof that the RAW approach can work. Thompson-Williams says the murals on the walls are a reminder of just how far the school has come - and how engagement with the local community and a focus on the arts can greatly affect not only pupils, but teachers, too.

“You can’t be upset in a school like this,” she says.

“You walk in here and there has got to be a mural that’s going to catch your eye and make you smile and think ‘wow, I’m here’.”

Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 1 March 2019 issue under the headline “Meet the school where kids are bouncing off the walls”

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