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Publicolor: From Paint Can to College

October 08, 2009

IMG_0018 On a cloudy Saturday in Brooklyn, I found myself following circled pink "P"s in yellow triangles along Vermont Street. Beneath black scaffolding on an old building a poster announcing "Publicolor Day at JHS 292" pointed me in the right direction.

The day-long event, which would see students and adult volunteers paint the interior of JHS 292, was being hosted by New York City-based Publicolor, a nonprofit organization incorporated in 1996 that uses "color, collaboration, design, and the painting process to re-engage students in their education, schools, and communities."

I couldn't wait to get inside -- not only because it was about to pour, but also because I had a lot of questions for Ruth Lande Shuman, the organization's founder and president. Questions like, Where did you come up with the idea of painting school walls to re-engage students? And was it actually working?

By the time I found the school, a few students were already busy in the lobby: painting, chatting, and singing along to the top 40 hits playing on the boom box near the security desk. As I made my way toward the cafeteria, I found even more students coating hallway walls with bright yellow and green paint -- quite the contrast to the industrial-white walls I knew so well from my high school days.

A little later, Shuman, who was inspired to start the organization by a stint as a member of the Big Apple Circus' arts education outreach program as well as a six-month program on the psychological effects of color, explained to me over a cafeteria table that "color has huge power to impact," and that schools should be painted in colors that are "thoughtfully chosen to inspire students, not discourage their attention."


Moreover, by targeting low-achieving students, Shuman said, Publicolor could really make a difference. And it has: "This spring, 86 percent of our students graduated from high school on-time compared to 42 percent of the kids at the schools they attend. And almost all are the first in their families to go on to college."

So how does it work? Through a continuum of programs -- Paint Club, COLOR Club, Next Steps, Fresh Coat, and Next Steps Prep -- the organization works to engage at-risk students in their education and, at the same time, prepares them to become productive members of society. As students transform their schools and communities, they transform themselves.

"Each of our schools tells a different story," said Shuman. Not only hallway walls, but classroom, cafeteria, and entrance/exit doors are painted in warm, vibrant tones carefully chosen by students and voted on by the entire school.

LoResPubliColor_DSC2796 Jeffrey, an 8th-grade student at JHS 292, explained -- in between rubbing dry paint off his arms -- the best part of the program is that he can have fun and meet people. And because he's in the program, Jeffrey admitted, he works harder in school.

The trick is to convey to parents the value of a good education, said Shuman. In the future, Publicolor plans to increase parent involvement even as it works to re-energize its efforts in NYC. (A pilot program in Pittsburgh was suspended last year when the economy cratered.)

While heading back outside through the school's freshly painted doors, I wondered how many other nonprofits were offering students a unique opportunity that not only taught them some of the key building blocks of art appreciation but also boosted their interest in education. Do you know of any organizations outside of NYC with a similar mission? If so, we'd love to hear about them -- and so would our readers.

And don't forget, October is Funding for Arts Month at the Foundation Center. To learn more, visit our Focus on the Arts Web portal.

-- Regina Mahone

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Posted by Cheryl Mahoney  |   October 08, 2009 at 04:55 PM

What an inspiring story! Thanks for sharing it. I love to hear about organizations that are doing innovative things to engage people, especially students. I love the combination of improving the schools by painting them, and of inspiring the students at the same time.

Cheryl Mahoney
[email protected]

Posted by Regina Mahone  |   October 12, 2009 at 11:40 AM

Hi Cheryl,

Thank you for the kind note. The students were very excited to participate at Publicolor Day. The event not only inspired the students, but also the volunteers involved, and me -- I plan on painting my apartment walls pretty soon!

Thanks again,

Posted by Kathryn Pyle  |   October 14, 2009 at 08:00 PM

This is a really nice story, thanks for going out in the rain to bring it to us. A lovely idea, kids coloring their environment and learning, and meeting people and having fun, all at the same time. And the pictures captured the story perfectly; I loved the one of the sidewalk with your shoes peeking into the frame! But they're all terrific.

Posted by Matt  |   October 15, 2009 at 02:26 PM

Great story, Regina!

Posted by CertaProPainter  |   February 17, 2010 at 12:43 PM

That really is a great story - thanks for sharing!

Posted by Fundraiser  |   May 12, 2011 at 07:20 PM

Some people might think this is exploitative since they're getting the school painted for free, but if it helps the kids engage in school, I say why not.

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