Quotes from Chicago journalist Sydney J. Harris and Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white school in the South, inspire this hallway mural at Woodson. (Photo by Lloyd Degrane)

These walls can talk

The murals decorating the University of Chicago Charter School campuses tell stories of success.

“We are a community of learners and leaders.” Students see those words painted at the entrance of North Kenwood/Oakland Elementary, one of four campuses of the University of Chicago Charter School. It’s a mantra from the school’s director, Tanika Island-Smith, that sets the tone for the murals and quotes found throughout the rest of the building. Students at the school, famous African Americans, and others make up that community of learners and leaders, Island-Smith says, walking the halls. “So there is Barack Obama, and there is Maya Angelou.” Outside the auditorium Katherine Dunham, PhB’36, reads on a bench near the lake, while Paul Robeson stands behind her, also reading. Between the lockers are paintings of NKO graduates, their noses in books.

Teachers chose the quotes painted above their doors, words by people such as Gandhi, George Washington Carver, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nikki Giovanni. So as students pass through the halls, Island-Smith says, “you know these people, you read this quote every day before you cross the threshold to your classroom. It puts something on their minds, and also then a person to go and study and to learn more about.”

All four schools have used their walls—both inside and, at Donoghue Elementary, outside—for education, motivation, arts curriculum, and community outreach. The paintings reflect each campus’s specific values: NKO focuses on “reading and achievement,” says Linda Wing, director of schools and community engagement at the University’s Urban Education Institute, which runs the charter school. At Woodlawn Secondary School the theme is “making history by graduating.” At Carter G. Woodson [AB 1908, AM 1908] Middle School it’s “students leading themselves, their school, and their world.” Donoghue values “family and community.”

Some of the murals are painted by professional artists. Others are done by students and teachers, an artistic complement to research they’ve done on their neighborhood or a historical figure or event. Sometimes students pair up with volunteers from the community or from corporations that have donated time and money to the schools. The murals allow students, teachers, and directors to “put their mark” on buildings they share with other Chicago Public Schools, Wing says. “The murals are our signature.”