At-risk Students Paint Their Way to Graduation with Publicolor

Encore: September 10, 2014

MetroFocus‘ Andrea Vasquez reports on Publicolor’s unique initiatives designed to boost graduation rates through painting and other creative endeavors.

With paintbrushes in hand, dozens of high school students descended on a homeless shelter in Brooklyn.

“Yeah, it can be a little messy,” said Destinee Thomas, a student. “But it actually teaches you responsibility and a more creative mindset.”

Each year about 1,200 under-performing students take part in Publicolor‘s after school and summer programs, which offer tutoring, SAT practice and job shadowing. 

They also have to paint.

“Our mission basically is to fight back at the alarming dropout rate in our city, which ultimately leads to a cycle of poverty, and giving kids the practical skills,” said Cara Spitzer, the Paint Club‘s community relations manager.

Founded in 1996, Publicolor has painted 160 schools, 18 playgrounds and 191 community facilities.

“I saw environments that were so profoundly disrespectful, that looked and felt like prisons and that’s when the light bulb went on,” said Publicolor president and founder, Ruth Lande Shuman. “I thought, if I put a paintbrush in the hands of especially disaffected students, they would change the way their school looked and felt.”

Schools, homeless shelters and community buildings get a fresh coat of paint and a splash of color to brighten the surroundings. Publicolor students come from all five boroughs, not only for the work skills but for the experience and sense of community.

In 2013, 85% of Publicolor students graduated from high school, compared to New York City’s overall on-time graduation rate of 61%. Many even stay with the program and become staff.

 “We’re a long term intensive intervention,” said Lande Shuman. “I tell the kids when they join Publicolor it’s a life sentence and I mean it. I mean we become a family.”

According to Cara Spitzer, the Paint Club is more than just painting. “The fact that the kids are doing all the work and the kids are picking the colors and they’re becoming reconnected with their school environment and translating that to a deeper to their education is almost the added bonus that educators don’t necessary expect but are so pleasantly surprised in the end.”

Painting is a vital part of all Publicolor programs, but they also integrate college and career help. The 7-week Summer Design Studio at Pratt Institute aims to avoid summer slip-back by sharpening student’s math and literacy skills through product design.

Lande Shuman said she didn’t set out to create a new model, “but what emerged was this applied learning model, which appeals to a lot of kids who are otherwise not attracted to traditional education.”

“I had self-esteem issues and I was never confident until I came to Publicolor, because my grades were down, they weren’t as good. And now I’m on the honor roll,” testified Aaron Lewis, a student.

This year the organization gave 106 scholarships to help cover the cost of tuition, and about 65% of Publicolor’s graduates also help pay their way through school by – what else? – painting.


MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, The Peter G. Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney Fund, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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