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Written by Stuart Sheldon, BT Contributor   
February 2015

A grassroots effort to turn schools into works of art

“OFamilyMatters_2-15ur school used to look like a prison. Now it looks like a place I want to come to every day.” These were the words of a beaming 13-year-old girl to April Thompson-Williams, principal at José de Diego Middle School in Wynwood.

Like so many Miami inner-city schools, JdD was a sprawling, windowless bunker three months ago, before one of its teachers had the brilliant idea of reaching out to local artists.

In just a few days, more than 60 huge walls were transformed from blank barriers into mesmerizing portals. Now, says Thompson-Williams, the 700 students consider the space sacred.

Nothing like this existed at the mass of sour yellow boxes that was my middle school. Though located in a leafy South Dade suburb, our tattered grounds were hardly inspiring. Sacred? Yeah, right.

Yet at JdD, where 96 percent of students receive subsidized lunches, and where budget cuts have removed art and music programs, a pent-up enthusiasm has been unleashed.


A new “calmness exists, where the students feel the need to behave out of respect for the art,” says Thompson-Williams, “because they were there to bear witness to these works from beginning to end. And they feel a responsibility to protect the work and tell the story.”

In these challenging days of our faltering public school system, this basic act of painting walls is, to use a popular tech term, “disruptive,” and in the best sense. It costs little yet changes the game, delivering invaluable benefits -- inspiration and motivation, the two key ingredients in any child’s progress.

We can replicate this project at other Upper Eastside schools. More on that later.


JdD sits just off I-95, adjacent to Wynwood’s exploding international art scene. But as is so often the case, this working-class neighborhood saw little of the creative and financial influx happening a few blocks away. So JdD joined forces with the local business association, and together they succeeded in bringing brilliant local and international artists to the school, all of whom donated their work. Other costs were nominal: paint, lift rentals, etc., much of it covered by enthusiastic locals and businesses.

Now they aim to create a permanent arts and music magnet program at JdD. That will cost real money, but they remain undaunted. If local government can’t do it, passionate citizens can. To learn more and/or donate to the JdD program, visit

JdD assigned each class to an artist whom the kids engaged with from inception to completion, patiently watching the two-story works unfold and reveal their messages.

The work is fierce and brutally honest, as fine art should be. For youngsters in the throes of adolescent confusion, it masterfully conveys deep and dark truths about isolation and hope and fear and fantasy far more effectively than words ever could.

The kids get it. They feel it. And love it! More now walk around with sketchbooks, sitting between classes and drawing. “When will you give me free time so I can paint?” a sixth-grader asks the principal. The fuse is lit. 

ArtBasel14-School-107“Keeping it 100” is high praise in teen slang. It means to be honest and stick to the way you are, no matter what anyone else thinks. This is how the students describe the artists. Can you think of a finer example for impressionable teens trying to navigate the frenetic and superficial world they confront? One seventh-grader said it all: “Now that they came, they made our lives better. It makes us want to go to school.”

America’s (and the world’s) excellence is predicated on kids who want to go to school.

Do yourselves a favor, and drive over to see the school at 3100 NW 5th Ave. You can also find more photos of these amazing murals below.

Much respect goes not just to the mind-blowing artists, but to Thompson-Williams, science coach Catalina Hidalgo, whose idea it was, and school district superintendent Alberto Carvalho for allowing such no-holds-barred images to attack their barren walls and open their students’ minds.

Inspiring teens is no easy feat. But our kids can handle the raw truth if we simply have the guts to give it to them without sugarcoating. I say, let’s do this for all the underserved children in our neighborhoods and beyond. No school should remain unpainted!

I am part of a nonprofit dedicated to using this model and creating a template to take it nationally so that more children will want to go to a school that they find “sacred.” All it takes is some paint, the magic of visionary artists, and you. Please e-mail me to learn how you can help begin to reintroduce the lost creative sparkle to our kids’ learning environments.


Stuart Sheldon is an artist, author, and Miami native. Follow his blog at and @stuart_sheldon.


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Click the following images to see enlarged versions of Sean O’Reilly's photographs

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