Prince George’s mural project is an exercise in art for kids’ sake


Prince George’s County Art in Public Places Program and WPGC sponsor a day of mural-making led by contest winning-artist Jose Piedra, right, who watches over Kyra Chamberlain, 11, left, as she paints a section of a mural at William Paca Elementary School on Nov. 10. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)
November 10, 2012

The Landover elementary school students who gathered Saturday morning were jumping with excitement at the chance to paint a mural for their school with the guidance of a professional artist.

At William Paca Elementary in Prince George’s County, painting or art of any kind is a treat. The school, where 85 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunch, does not have its own art teacher.

“Paaaaaaaint!” 11-year-old twins Kayanna and Kyra Chamberlain squealed as they brushed primary colors on the healthy-living-themed mural that would soon brighten their school.

“I love art,” Kayanna said. “I wish we had a real art teacher who knows how to do art real well. I want a teacher who teaches us art every day.”

The school shares a traveling art teacher with four other schools in the county. That teacher visits William Paca Elementary about once every six weeks.

The twins and others quickly got to work on the mural, which was set up like a paint-by-numbers project and shows sunflowers, fresh fruit, a bicycle rider and a child on a swing. They said they could not wait to see the mural’s eight large wooden panels hanging outside their school — located on busy Sheriff Road — for all to see, even people on the way to nearby FedEx Field.

“It makes me feel like a famous artist,” a beaming Kayanna said.

“It makes me feel like I’m more than just a normal person at school,” Kyra said.

The mural event was sponsored by the county as part of its Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative, a new program intended to help communities struggling with sluggish economies and stubborn crime. This was the program’s first mural project.

The county and its co-sponsor, CBS Radio’s WPGC (95.5 FM), held a contest, with a $1,000 prize, to select a local artist to design the mural. Muralist and art teacher Jose Piedra, who lives in Hyattsville, won the contest. He has painted several murals in the District, including one on Georgia Avenue NW that portrays the American dream, and another on Rhode Island Avenue NE that depicts unity, he said.

“Kids need art. Cities need art. We need more beauty around,” Piedra said. “Without art they will turn into robots. Kids need art for emotional balance.”

WPGC blared music at the event, which also had food and giveaways of such things as water bottles and drew hundreds from the community.

The turnout was exciting for Alexia Clark, the president of the school’s PTA. “Something like this helps get the parents out,” Clark said. “We don’t have big parent involvement. At our PTA meetings, we might get six or seven parents.”

Clark said the school didn’t have a PTA last year. Even though her daughter doesn’t attend the school anymore, she agreed to be the president this year.

Principal Dorothy Clowers said the school has shared an art teacher for about five years and before that had no art teacher at all. About 78 percent of her students are rated proficient in reading, up from about 24 percent 10 years ago, she said. She identified her biggest challenge as the transience of the students’ families.

“A student may become homeless or have domestic problems and move away in October, and then move back again within the same school year,” she said.

Clowers said she tries to involve parents in enjoyable activities — for instance, inviting them to school at night and having the kids come along wearing pajamas and toting teddy bears. Clowers tries to create a “home environment” at school for that one night, she said, and while they’re there, parents are taught how to help their children with homework.

Prince George’s County Council Chair Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale), who was at the school Saturday, said she was proud of how involved the children and parents were.

“When they are a part of it, there’s ownership,” Harrison said. “Many people around here don’t leave the place they grew up in. I grew up near here, and I’ve got lots of family here. Some of these children may be looking at this mural forever, for the rest of their lives. As adults, they can say, ‘I was part of that.’ ”

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