Ruth Lande Shuman vividly recalls her first time in a New York City public school. It was 1993. She was visiting an East Harlem middle school in her capacity as a Big Apple Circus board member. She was there to see the circus’ afterschool arts program for the school’s predominantly low-income population. But as she walked down the battleship-gray halls and sat in the badly lit gym, Shuman was stunned.
“It looked completely hostile,” she remembers, 19 years later. “There was no sensory stimulation, nothing for the children to look at. I thought, if I were a kid, I’d be putting graffiti on the walls just to make it prettier. What parents would want to come into such an unwelcoming environment?”
Shuman grew up as an art lover in a wealthy Montreal home. Her grandfather, Abe Bronfman, was one of eight; among his siblings was Samuel, the driving force behind the rise of the Seagram’s distillery empire. Herself a mother of two, Shuman studied political science and art history at the University of Pennsylvania and received her master’s in industrial design from the Pratt Institute. Through her studies, she developed an interest in the psychological effects of color, of how people’s brains are affected by their surrounding aesthetic, how color can affect attitudes and behavior.
After her visit to the Harlem school, Shuman had a startling realization. Could the public schools’ dreary academic achievement have something to do with their dreary environment? What would happen if the schools were repainted in bright colors, the kind of colors that foster imagination and achievement? And what if students took charge of the whole process, painting their schools themselves?
Of course, inner-city schools usually have bigger problems than chipped paint and worn wallpaper. Often, the last thing on a principal’s mind is the aesthetics of his building. Shuman came to believe that neglecting a school’s appearance was undermining its educational mission. “Buckets of cheap, bleak paint are the least expensive, and they get the job done,” she says. “But then people wonder, ‘Why aren’t these kids interested? Why aren’t we seeing results here?’ Well, what kid wants to learn in that environment? There’s nothing to convince them they should even want to be in school if you’ve designed it to look like a prison.”
Thus was born Publicolor. Shuman takes on New York City school buildings that haven’t seen a paintbrush in years. First, she teaches a workshop in color dynamics to a burgeoning Paint Club of students and administrators so that “they understand color as a visual language,” she explains. The students create color combinations that are selected in a school-wide vote. Paint Club students are then taught the fundamentals of commercial painting, as well as the work habits needed to get the job done. Some are invited into Publicolor’s continuum of multi-day, multi-year after-school and summer programs—Color Club, Next Steps, and Next Steps Prep—where they continue to hone their painting skills, receive academic tutoring, attend weekly career and life skills workshops, and plan and prepare for college and career.
“It’s an original idea that sounds cute, but is managed very seriously,” says Jane O’Connell, president of the Altman Foundation, one of Publicolor’s biggest supporters. “This isn’t an arts and crafts project. These kids learn to do very professional work. There’s a sense of joy because it’s fun, but they put lots of time into this.” Publicolor students learn to be leaders, improving their school environments and creating a new sense of pride, ownership, and community. Last year, more than 900 at-risk students joined Paint Club, and 86 percent of active Publicolor students graduated from high school on time—100 percent going on to college. Shuman has also rallied corporate donors and foundations to back her mission of brightening New York’s school districts, one building at a time.
Shuman tested the Publicolor model through a pilot at East Harlem’s Junior High School No. 99. The school’s flat, monochromatic colors were replaced with Publicolor’s trademark shades: glossy apple-green hues, vibrant blues, and electric egg-yolk yellows. Word traveled quickly throughout Manhattan. As children gathered to volunteer, cosmetic company Estée Lauder sent a group of 250 employees to paint alongside them.
In 1995, Rudy Crew—then Chancellor of New York City’s public schools—took note of Shuman’s J.H.S. 99 re-design and requested proposals for much-needed school beautification projects. Shuman pitched Publicolor, and in 1996, the New York schools offered Publicolor a 3-year contract to focus on transforming 15 of the city’s lowest-performing schools. Bloomberg L.P. also jumped behind the effort, giving Publicolor an initial $25,000. Today, Bloomberg is one of Publicolor’s biggest supporters, with annual giving in the six figures.
A year later, Shuman got a call from paint manufacturer Benjamin Moore & Co. “I was sitting in my home office,” she remembers, “and Richard Roob, the [former] CEO called. He said, ‘I like the work you’re doing.’ I almost fell off my chair.” The company began sponsoring projects by donating paint.
Private foundations took notice, too. After watching the transformation of 15 schools, the Altman Foundation became interested in the program. Altman, founded in 1913, has a mission of improving the quality of life for low-income families in the New York area. Altman added Publicolor to its roster of grantees with a $20,000 grant.
“Programs like Publicolor are important because they bring it back to the children sitting in the classrooms,” O’Connell says. “It helps that the approach is so unique.” The unique approach has impressed other funders, such as the Joseph and Sylvia Slifka Foundation, which donates more than $100,000 annually to the effort.
A Lasting Hue
As it approaches its 15th anniversary, Publicolor has brightened more than 135 public schools. Shuman has also taken her troupe of painters into 153 community centers, health clinics, and school playgrounds.
She’s noticed that after painting, students quickly go from apathetic about their schools to fiercely protective. Graffiti, which is rampant in the schools before the transformation, becomes a rare sight after Publicolor is finished. “The students are not going to let anyone mess with their work,” says Shuman.
The program also promotes a sense of harmony, safety, and community in neighborhoods often interrupted by graffiti vandalism and run-down buildings. “This is one of the reasons we as donors love this program,” says O’Connell. “Children learn what it means to take pride in the overall appearance of their community.”
Julyssa Lopez is an intern at Philanthropy.