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Sunday, June 16, 2024

DC School Teams Up with Muralists to Create Outdoor Learning Space

When students at Turner Elementary School returned to classes this fall, they were greeted with a spectacular sight: a school garden in full bloom after months in the summer sun, and behind it the enormous image of a rocket ship blasting off the outer wall into outer space. The mural embodies not only the remarkable transformation of a brick wall and an overgrown lot into a magnificent learning space, but also the upward trajectory of the school itself.

Turner is an extended-year, pre-K-fifth-grade public school in Ward 8. It is also one of DC’s five participants in the Turnaround Arts program, a partnership led by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

Every Turnaround Arts school receives funding to engage in a project with local community partners. Typically these projects involve music, dance and theater.

“Turner was unique in that they specifically wanted to beautify the aesthetic of their school,” said Katherine Park, the local director of Turnaround Arts for the five public schools. Principal Eric Bethel had in fact envisioned a complete transformation of the lot on the south side of the school, turning it into an outdoor learning space.

Janet Newton, a Spanish teacher at Turner, partnered with George Washington University students to redesign the space into a living classroom. They dug up the weeds, and soon the area was planted with grass, flowers and a vegetable garden. The school even installed picnic tables.

“Now we had this wonderful garden and learning space,” said art teacher Liz Dittamo, “but we also realized there was this huge wall that needed some attention.” Bethel, Dittamo and Park decided that adding a mural would be a good way to promote school culture and pride while giving something beautiful back to the community.

Additionally, they felt that whoever was chosen to design the mural should have a connection to the community. They selected Brandon Hill and Peter Chang, two local artists who run the No Kings Collective, a design-build studio, creative agency and events production company all rolled into one.

Since the theme of Turnaround Arts is “whole school improvement,” Dittamo wanted feedback from students. Each class was asked the following prompt: “Which colors, images, words or shapes come to mind when you think of Turner?” In response, students wrote or provided images on a large sheet of butcher paper to form a “vision board.” Dittamo then gave the vision boards to No Kings Collective, which produced two images: one of a sleek rocket ship, the other of a vivid garden.

Then all students, teachers, administrators, families and school partners were asked to vote for their favorite mural design. The images were even displayed during afternoon pickup to allow parents the opportunity to vote. The competition was close; the image of the rocket ship won by just 40 votes.

As they worked on the project, No Kings Collective also provided Turner’s students with lessons in mural painting. Artist Hill felt energized from the student response: “For me it’s pretty cool to watch how their minds connect the dots together, realizing people can do this, and that they can do it too.”

On the last day of June, students, teachers, parents and community members gathered at Turner for the official unveiling. The project that had brought everyone together had now become a community celebration, with speeches, cupcakes and a countdown as they pulled back the tarp to reveal the new mural. Next to the rocket ship, the artists had added a slogan which perfectly captured the process for how it all came together: “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work.”

Principal Bethel was thrilled with the result: “When I joined Turner three years ago, I envisioned this outdoor space as part of our learning community,” he said. “I’m so proud of our team for making this vision into a reality and creating something beautiful at Turner that will last for years to come.”

Park agreed, adding that while artistic outcomes are sometimes difficult to measure, the outcomes here are easy to observe. “You get a more beautiful space, community involvement and school pride,” she said. “And when people drive by the school, they see Turner.”


Jonathan Lewis has written articles about education and the arts for East of the River, EdSurge, ArtsBlog and KnightBlog. He works for DC Public Schools in the Office of Teaching and Learning.

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