Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States
Chapel Hill is a town of about 60,000, home to the University of North Carolina and UNC Hospital, which play a major part in the local economy. It is also one corner of the Research Triangle, including the research universities of Duke and North Carolina State. Mary Scroggs Elementary School is located just south of the university, in a neighborhood called Southern Village, populated mostly by higher income professional families and families of international scholars. As a district school, Mary Scroggs also serves the lower-income families who live in apartment complexes near the main highway, an area that also houses several refugee communities. At the time of this writing, Scroggs serves 500 students pre-K-5th who speak 22 different native languages, including: Hebrew, Marathi, Karen, Spanish, French, German, Swahili/Kiswah, Twi, Danish, Arabic/Syrian/Egyptian/Lebanese), Spanish, Chinese/Taiwan, Telugu, Korean, Bengali, Dutch, Farsi/Persian/Dari, Hungarian, Kinyamulenge, and Polish.
Funding for public schools in the US is primarily state-based, with only 11% of the funding coming from the federal government. 63% comes from the state, with the remaining 26% coming from the county level. North Carolina ranks 41st in per-pupil spending overall in the US. Scroggs is located within the district of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, which offers a substantial local supplement in both per-pupil and teacher pay rate, making it one of the highest-ranked districts in the state. Every year that I have been a public school teacher in North Carolina, art education has been on the front line of budget cuts, especially at the elementary level. Many districts have eliminated visual art instruction, or share a teacher between three or more schools. Scroggs students are fortunate enough to have art class once a week for the entire school year. My district-funded materials budget, essential to an art program, is $1.04/student. My school’s Parent-Teacher Association is very active with fundraising, and provides a generous supplement to the school budget, meeting most of my needs for a vibrant art program. For this project, I was also able to secure an extra grant to cover supplies from the Public School Foundation in my district.
The population of my school is an unusual mix of families with a wealth of resources and education, and families with very few resources, many with histories of trauma from their native countries. Our economically disadvantaged students (EDS) score 43-46% lower than our highest-performing group of white students. In addition, there is a social divide between the neighborhood groups that has been hard to bridge. To counteract these trends, I created a grant-funded after school enrichment program to bring these groups of students together, called Community Art Club. Free for all passionate student artists, the grant includes transportation for those in need (a necessity to equitable participation for lower income families). Community Art Club creates art for the school and surrounding community, using processes that are collaborative and empowering from the start to finish of a project. We have painted crosswalks, created peace banners, totem poles, and murals for the school and neighborhood. In Community Art Club we build relationships, and students from very different neighborhoods begin to have playdates and friendships outside of school hours. I found that collaborative art making can create community, an idea that became the focus of my Fulbright research.
Community Art Club, 2017
Community Art Club students completed the first panel of the mural in the fall of 2018. 50% of the club’s 14 members were economically disadvantaged students. Of all the groups who worked on the mural, this group had the most time to engage fully in the collaborative process and complete their work. The ‘personality’ of this group was outgoing, thoughtful, positive, and committed. These students were very comfortable and familiar with me and the art studio, and built relationships easily across grade levels and between groups. While three were non-native English speakers, they had all achieved fluency in English and had no trouble communicating. In the spirit of engaging the wider community, I also had the help of local muralist Loren Pease. Collaborating with another artist to facilitate the children’s work was another experience unique to this group.
Community Art Club 2018
The mural project was also a field test for a process I had researched and developed over years of facilitating collaborative group projects (read more about the process here). Initially it was envisioned as a bicultural collaboration, with Community Art Club kids creating the first half, and a group of school children in Greece creating the second half. The children were thrilled with the idea that their work would be carried across the globe for children in another culture to respond to. Together, we looked at Greece on a world map, noting that there are some things we share despite the distance: the ocean, the sky, the moon and sun, and the wind. We read the book, Same, Same, but Different, in which two boys are pen pals exchanging letters and drawings about their homes. Presented with a blank canvas and the prompt, “What’s important in our community?” these kids settled quickly on a literal (instead of abstract or metaphoric) representation of North Caorlina, western mountains to eastern coastline, with the ocean stretching toward the panel the other group would create. They thought of their images as a visual invitation to the next group of children, and decided to write some messages for them in the clouds (they reasoned clouds might make it all the way to Greece). At one point the children decided to put their own self-portrait faces in the mountains, to show that people are the foundation of our community.
In every way the work of these kids was expansive. Their communication was unhurried and rich in questions, philosophy, and detail. One critical moment happened when I presented them with first complete design I had created by Photoshopping their drawings together according to our composition. They were surprised, and some were not happy with the differences between what each had envisioned in his/her head and what I had put together. With this group we had the time to normalize these feelings (see the Emotional Journey of Collaboration, under process) and work through what they liked and didn’t like. I had the time to make adjustments to the design until everyone was satisfied. Many of the children would come early or stay late after school to add details to the mural. We had a whole session just to celebrate and discuss what the process meant, and by building on each other’s ideas, these kids created a deeply emotional narrative of the project.
The children also reflected in writing on the project (comments without names are children who chose to be anonymous):
We created a mural that isn't even ours--it's a connection. It's a sign to show what the world is. I was part of it. Everyone had a voice. (Gabe, 11)
My favorite part was when we put the finishing touches on the mural because it was crazy to think of what it was before and what it is now.
I will always remember how EVERYONE got to work on the mural. It shows unity and love for everyone in the world.
My favorite part is how our art is going to be shown to kids in Greece. It is sort of like communicating with the children there. I will always remember that everybody counts.
Making the mural was not just about art, it was about the fun and laughter I had with my friends while doing it.
I learned it is really important to work together, and when you do that then what you are working on can look great!
You can find more photos, information, and a better understanding of how this project unfolded over time by checking out the Facebook page for the mural: Same Difference: The Story of a Mural Connecting Kids Across the World.
Click on the images below to enlarge.