Once marred by violence, a North Philly schoolyard now blossoms

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When Sharon Marino returned to Alexander McClure Elementary School as its principal in 2013, the K-5 school’s exterior was a dismal collage of maroon paint and brown brick.

“The school yard was, I’m gonna say, drab,” Marino said, tiptoeing past some more provocative descriptions.

If the paint job was ugly, the school yard’s past was even uglier.

Six years ago this month — and one year before Marino took the helm —  a 28-year-old man was shot and killed on the playground. Community members in the surrounding Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia viewed the school with understandable skepticism.

“Many parents didn’t feel that that was a friendly atmosphere for the kids,” said Carlos Aviles, an artist and parent of a child who attended McClure at the time. “We were hoping the murals would brighten up the school.”

By the end of this school year, the murals Aviles referenced will adorn every side of McClure, a majority Hispanic school that serves mostly low-income students.

For each of the last four years, the school’s fifth-grade classes designed and helped build tile mosaics. Gone are the barred windows and chipped paint, replaced with depictions of lively street scenes, bountiful gardens, and butterflies. (Each fifth-grader gets to design his or her own.)

McClure’s project was a collaboration between the school’s art teachers and COSACOSA art at large, Inc., a public art nonprofit. Funders include the Knight Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Picasso Project, which is celebrating its 15th year doling out “mini-grants” to support art projects at city schools. Altogether, the Picasso Project has supported arts initiatives at 163 city schools, according to its own record keeping.

Marino, who taught at McClure before becoming principal, prioritized outside partnerships when she took the helm. Her goal is to make McClure a community school, and that meant drawing neighbors in. The exterior seemed a logical place to start.

“We really wanted to open up the school and say, ‘Hey, we’re new,’ ” Marino said. “We’re sort of starting over.”

Along with the mosaics came new benches, donated by Lowe’s, and a “Hope Reading Garden” where students can have some quiet reflection amid the playground chaos.

Rippling effects

Neighbors have started to notice and reflect the changes. Aviles said the whole block around the school has taken on a tidier feel. Graffiti, once a scourge, now barely pops up on school property, said Marino. When it does, there’s no problem tracking down the culprits.

“[The neighbors] said I love what you’re doing,” Marino said. “They said I wanna know what you’re gonna do next.”

This school year, students will plaster new murals along the two sides of McClure that remain unadorned. They’ll also record their thoughts about art, a tradition for the fifth-grade class.

Past students described art as an outlet for creativity, a distraction amid the slog of a long school day, or, most poignantly, a way to channel sadness.

“If I’m feeling moody, I go draw something that shows how I feel,” said Zion Jefferson, who graduated from McClure two years ago. “The best thing about art is it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.”

And in this imperfect place, beauty now abounds.

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