Publicolor’s Continuum of Design-Based Programs
In the early 1990s, industrial designer Ruth Shuman hit upon an unconventional way to reduce drop-out rates in some of New York City’s most distressed public schools. Many were drab places that “looked like prisons,” Shuman recalls. “I felt there was a major disconnect between our expectations of excellence for students and teachers and those environments of disrespect that we were putting them in.” And, that’s when the lightbulb went on: “What if I put paintbrushes in the hands of disaffected students—the ones most likely to drop out or to put graffiti on the walls—and showed them how to transform their schools into places where they could feel a sense of pride and ownership?”
Shuman established Publicolor in 1996 to carry out that concept. Over the past 18 years, the New York-based nonprofit has transformed 239 public schools and community facilities into vibrantly colored spaces, while helping thousands of teens learn art and design skills and reengage with education.
Most teens first connect with Publicolor through the after-school Paint Club program that the organization operates in struggling schools across the city. Participants—who are recruited through referrals and classroom presentations—learn how to create and choose harmonious color combinations; work as a team; and tackle big painting jobs by breaking them down into logical, doable steps. On Saturdays, teens paint their schools or other neglected community buildings. While working alongside corporate volunteers, who also serve as informal mentors, students receive advice about possible careers and the education needed to succeed in them. Although it might seem surprising that teens would spend their free time with a paintbrush and bucket of paint, participants enjoy the camaraderie: “We become a second family to the students,” Shuman notes.
Students who show a knack for these makeovers can continue in the organization’s additional year-round programs, where they receive stipends or credits for painting, as well as further design training, academic tutoring, and college support. For example, at Publicolor’s seven-week Summer Design Studio program, located on Pratt Institute’s campus, 75 at-risk teens spend the mornings tackling product-design projects that simultaneously strengthen math and literacy skills. “They have no idea that they’re actually in school because they’re so busy making something,” Shuman remarks. In the afternoon, participants paint homeless shelters, ultimately earning a $1,000 stipend.
School officials credit Publicolor with boosting students’ attendance, retention, and graduation rates—and even with reducing teachers’ absenteeism.
Principals tell us that when Publicolor paints a school, we not only change the environment, but we also help change the school’s culture: We come in with a “can-do” attitude in schools where the prevailing mood is often described, in a word, as “hopelessness.”Ruth Shuman Founder and President, Publicolor