There is a story to be told, and it’s unfolding at Eleanor C. Emlen School, a public school with lack of access to the arts. A public school where the children are guaranteed one meal a day, where many kids walk to school. But dreams are happening and possibilities are being introduced as the children immerse themselves in the creativity of the visual arts, (performing arts an unexpected bonus), while we add on the critical literacy component in Phase 2. Hope and opportunity, along with pride and tears of joy and celebration, are opening new doors — led by artists from the Mt. Airy Art Garage (MAAG), teachers from Emlen, an inspired principal, Ms. Tammy Thomas, and, of course, the most amazing class of 4th and 5th grade kids ever.
The first word is children, the next word is pride, followed by creativity and making dreams happen. Year 1 of the Community of Pride (COP) Mural Project has been a year of exploration — talking, drawing, creating unique personal artwork incorporating self pride, family pride, and community pride. Finding artistic safe space that is accepting and creative. But even more… the stories:
· Denise Veronick, Emlen lead teacher, during the mural dedication: “We didn’t pick the best students (to be in the COP Project). We didn’t pick those with the highest grades or best attendance. We chose the ones we felt needed it the most, would be impacted the most, would affect their lives the most. I learned many important lessons. First, everyone is an artist in their own way. Everyone loves when another appreciates their work. These kids were brave and, in the end, reaped the benefits of putting themselves out there.
The group that came together to create this mural couldn’t have been more diverse. With our common goal in mind and our various abilities on display we created a beautiful and meaningful work of art. This is not something that happens in the School District of Philadelphia. This may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity for these young people. They learned to work with people who are very different from them. We shared a mutual respect for our differences. Even though I think we all witnessed the great learning opportunities throughout our time together, I can’t help but think of the lessons these students will take with them into their futures.”
· Touissant: “Toussaint came to Emlen as a 4th grader in the Autistic Support class. He was quiet and seemed to defer to the slightly older and slightly bolder children. In fact, I rarely heard him speak. I chose Toussaint to participate in this project as a 5th grader because of his artistic ability. When he put his mind to a project he saw it through to the end. He put all he had into his drawings, using every bit of space on the paper and using color like a pro.
As the project got started we watched Toussaint bloom into a whole new person. His confidence grew before our eyes. He made friends with a few students finding shared interests such as football and Pokemon. He was actually having full conversations, but that was only one example of his confidence. One class period we were going over a Powerpoint that consisted of words and pictures. When asked for a volunteer to read Toussaint’s hand shot up. (I knew he could not read all the words but he wanted to try.) He stood proudly and read the words out loud as I whispered them to him. He was able to put himself out there because he trusted the group to not make fun of him. He took a giant step in his social confidence that day. Plus he ended up selling his original framed piece.” — Denise Veronick, teacher.
· Ishaaq: “Ishaaq came to Emlen for 5th grade. He was a student with limited academic ability and many behavior problems. The first few months of school his teacher complained that he did no school work — all he did was draw all day. We later found out that he couldn’t do the work so he did what he did best, draw.
Whenever Ishaaq came to work on the mural he had perfect behavior and worked harder than anyone else. He had found his niche at Emlen School. His two drawings were a prominent part of the mural. Had he not been a part of this group I fear the growth we saw in June would not have happened. He carried himself with pride, his behavior was completely turned around and his school work was getting done. I saw him the morning of his 5th Grade Move Up Ceremony, he was bursting with pride and looking forward to getting awards in front of his classmates. (I gave him an Art Award and his teacher gave him a Most Improved Award)” — Denise Veronick, teacher.
· Naomi: Naomi showed she had a flair for showing what pride meant to her. She drew a picture of her uncle who is a firefighter along with his fire truck. She spoke about how proud she and her family are of her uncle. She also drew an excellent picture of a hip-hop dancer. This drawing captured the attention from an adult who wanted to own this drawing. They negotiated a price, discussed time spent and value, Naomi signed her work, and both walked away happy.
· Mom, crying at mural dedication: “I am so happy that my child is going to Emlen. Thank you so much for doing this.”
And yet, there was more… what we lovingly refer to as the “icing on the cake”:
· Free tickets and a bus to see “Having Our Say” at the Philadelphia Theater Company (PTC) was a highlight. Thank you PTC for your partnership with MAAG! Most of the students had never been to see a live play. They were all dressed up and on their best behavior. They made us all proud! And at the end of the performance they all got to see MAAGs art exhibition in the gallery. Even better, one child texted her Mom during the entire show — it was her first time ever going to a live performance in a theatre. And Mom said, for her daughter’s birthday, they were next going to see “Wicked,” and we were sworn to secrecy!
· Art At City Hall student showcase: A special invitation from the Philadelphia Office of Arts and Culture to showcase the work of the children from the COP Mural Project where art is making a difference in the community. Exhibition runs from August 7 – Sept. 29 with the reception on Wed., Sept. 27 in Rm 116.
· Young artists selling their work: We never saw it coming. Framed original artwork, ready to go to City Hall, were all over the COP artroom. Two students sold their work. So, next year, part of the program will involve framing all artwork, creating their own artists bio’s, with sale prices attached. In short, curating and selling their work!
So, you may ask, what’s next? We can barely contain ourselves we are just that excited. As children chase the teachers and principal at Emlen to be in Phase 2 starting this September, we proudly announce we are adding a literacy component. You will be hearing more about the Community of Pride Mural and Literacy Project.
Just know this. Maybe, just maybe, you may be able to attend Emlen’s “Welcome Back to School” night on Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 5:15 pm. Mt Airy Art Garage will be launching Phase 2 and featuring Arielle Baril (now 14 years old) who will be telling her story and singing for the entire school. Don’t know who she is? Well, check this out, and believe that you WILL want to be at Emlen on that night.
Stay tuned. There’s so much more going on. You won’t want to miss a thing.