Education in Wonderland

Outdoor Classrooms and Rich Murals Make Learning a Delightful Adventure

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, once said, "Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it." Thanks to a group of hard-working teenagers and the support of the Mural Arts Program, these words now grace the entrance to William McKinley Elementary School, inspiring students every morning as they head to class. Located in north Philadelphia, just last year McKinley was surrounded by the debris of urban poverty—litter mixed with the remains of the local drug trade made outdoor projects and lessons difficult at best. But today the school is bathed in beautiful—and educational—murals. And best of all, it’s flanked by two "outdoor classrooms"—one for mathematics and science, the other for humanities. At first glance, these "classrooms" look like sculpture gardens at a museum of modern art. But take a closer look. Each piece, from the pine and maple trees planted to illustrate the differences between evergreen and deciduous to the globe that students can write on to play geography games, is designed for teaching and learning. There are quiet spaces for reading, picnic tables for group discussions, a butterfly-attracting bush, clustered clocks for younger students to practice telling time and for older students to comprehend time zones, a mural to explain the revolution of the planets, and even an alphabet-odometer for generating words.

Four years ago, Shari Hersh and Jane Golden, both with Mural Arts, created a program called the Mural Service Corps for Philadelphia teenagers who love art; it’s like a peace corps of young muralists. Over time, Hersh and Golden realized that murals would have a greater impact on their neighborhoods if the lots in front of them were also improved, so they expanded the teens’ work to include landscaping with three-dimensional artwork. Last year, Hersh and Golden were inspired to transform McKinley after meeting with the energetic principal, Debora Borges-Carrera, the teachers, and the students—all of whom were involved in designing the murals and outdoor classrooms. McKinley is a small school, just 350 students, but it ranges from pre-kindergarten to seventh grade (and is adding eighth grade next year)—developing educational environments that would be stimulating for such a range of students would be quite a challenge. Hersh hired sculptor Jennie Shanker, muralist Shira Walinsky, and City Play’s landscape architect/early childhood educator Anna Forrester. Along with 14 high school students, they braved the summer heat to paint, weld, and sweat their way to the stunning results you see [in the pages of the magazine].

Roberta Fallon is a Philadelphia artist who writes about art for Philadelphia Weekly, and for the online magazines Artnet and Roberta Fallon and Libby Rosof's artblog. The project written about here is part of the school district's Campus Park initiative. Project partners included City Play, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society/Philadelphia Green, and the Philadelphia Eagles Youth Partnership. Additional support came from Mayor Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. 

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American Educator, Spring 2004