Paint It Forward: How Students Are Transforming Their Schools With Color

Had she been a student herself at East Harlem’s Junior High School 99 some 20 years ago, just before founding her nonprofit, Publicolor, Ruth Lande Shuman would have been “putting graffiti all over the walls myself, along with the kids. It felt like a prison,” she says.

Today JHS 99 looks more like a set from The Wizard of Oz, with hope replacing tags at the end of the rainbow corridors, all thanks to Paint Club, the organization’s cornerstone “fix it up” program.

Shuman had the bright idea—almost literally, in this case—to enlist kids themselves to repaint their own inner-city schools, not just to cheer up the student body but to also provide those most at risk of dropping out with ownership of their daily environment and all that implies—goals, commitment, and a sense that once you start a project, you have to finish it.

These days she runs the show from her Midtown office, which is as tangerine-and-banana colorful as any Paint Club corridor. A professional staff is assisted by young volunteers who’ve moved beyond Paint Club to a higher level in the Publicolor hierarchy—a bridge, in a way, to a career beyond school.

It’s hard to imagine Shuman today with a paintbrush in her hand, not because she seems above it all—hardly the case, since the love she has for her “kids” punctuates every sentence—and not because she dresses in her don’t-get-paint-on-me best as the public face of Publicolor and Paint Club, which overhauls about 10 new schools each year. She’s got a big show to run. A big mission. And, as you would suspect, a big Rolodex.

But it didn’t start out that way. While working toward a Master’s degree in industrial design at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute (“and taking plenty of time to get it; I had two boys to raise”), Shuman studied the psychological effects of color, discovering, she says, that “color has huge power to affect attitudes and behavior.” At the same time, she was also on the board of the Big Apple Circus, which frequently partnered with the city to take students to performances.

“I visited a lot of public schools in New York City and could feel the hostility the minute I walked in,” she says. “But I also became convinced that behind it all was what I call ‘sensory deprivation,’ a depressing, institutional drabness that induces feelings of hopelessness. I realized there was a major disconnect between our expectation for excellence from students and the dismal environment in which we put them.”

Then the lightbulb went off. 

“It was such a simple idea at first,” says Shuman, “one that a woman I worked with at the circus, who was also an educator, wholeheartedly embraced. She got me inside JHS 99 for the pilot project. She should have gone through a lot of red tape; she simply did not.”

The day of the first paint job, Rudy Crew, former chancellor of the New York City Board of Education, showed up to find 350 volunteers—students, teachers, and a host of non-scholastic volunteers from across the city—going over the walls. “He pulled me aside and said, “I want you in all my schools,” she says. “I wrote my first proposal; he gave me a contract.” The rest is fast-track history.

Sunrise—bright yellow, as welcome as an empty cab at rush hour—is the color the students chose for P.S. 7 in Harlem one recent Saturday. The Paint Club kids, ranging from sixth graders through high school teens, have already taped around the doorframes, which are being transformed by thick coats of Blue Wave alternating with strokes of Pear Green, to complement the vibrant Sunrise. All colors are original blends, picked by the group and each christened with its own name.

The 25 or so kids, along with a dozen non-Paint Club volunteers, are on a highly organized roll today. At paint stations behind a territorial line of tape that is not to be crossed—no willy-nilly grabs for refills—some kids do nothing but dish out paint and brushes or scold others for occasional messiness. Most actually paint, always partnering to move things along at a faster clip. Still others, seemingly with eyes in the back of their paint-splattered heads, supervise. Slacking is not allowed. But more to the point, it wouldn’t be cool. Nobody joins Paint Club to goof off.

Rihanna and Adele are what’s cool, blasting as they are from the radio down a far stretch of hallway. Too loud? Go paint around the corner. Can’t hear it? Get closer to the music. No doubt about it, this group is having fun. Two girls keep a high-wire act of verbal exchanges advancing down the hallway as fast as they can move their tandem ladders, painting furiously the entire time. One guy takes a playful swipe at the back of a girl’s already stained jacket as she transits his work zone.

“He get me?” she asks.

“Naw,” says the guy’s pal, but she never slows down to hear the answer.

Another kid banters with his two-grades-beyond friend—painting opposite walls, back to each other’s back, no eye-contact—and asks, “You change your name again today?”

The answer: “I change it every Saturday. You know that. Shut up anyway,” she says, meaning exactly the opposite, “unless you want me to start calling you ‘Freckles’ again.” Painting nearby, a young girl is so shy she rarely speaks.

In the middle of it all, my very own, charmingly precocious young partner decides to throw me a curve: “So, tell me some facts about you, man.”

Each outside volunteer today is teamed with a student, who is expected to share details of the mentor’s background—mine, in this case—over pizza at the noon break. And I hear myself saying, “Me? Oh, I grew up in the suburbs. Got to New York as soon as I could. Worked on magazines. Traveled a lot. Not much, really.” And meaning it. (“Hey, junior, want to trade my career for your age?)

That’s when it hits. Despite all the pre-conceived notions about what it would be like to paint with “underprivileged” children at an inner-city school, feeling sorry for them does not enter into it. With every brushstroke, playful or otherwise, these kids are like scouts, huffing and puffing along a trail toward merit badges. All I notice is the diligence and dedication, wrapped in camaraderie.

What else might Publicolor kids be doing on a book-free afternoon had they not decided to transform the halls outside their classrooms from a deck on the USS Missouri to a deck in the Florida Keys? Plenty, it seems.

“They’re painting to support each other,” Shuman says, “changing the look of their own schools. They’re involved, focused, making their motivation pay off while their friends might be already pregnant or getting hauled off to the police station.”

At first, not every principal was convinced that Paint Club was the way to go, says Shuman. They thought that colorizing the hallways might cause even more chaos. But momentum built, as other principals who had a positive experience with the program swayed others to jump onboard. Since Paint Club launched, in 1996, almost 150 New York City public schools have been redone.

Paint Club, which has students painting senior centers, rehab facilities, and other public institutions as well as schools, is only one of the programs now run by Publicolor. There is also Color Club, a more-advanced three-day-a-week apprenticeship, and Next Steps, which aims to empower college-bound high school juniors and seniors. Summer Design Studio involves courses at Pratt, which trains students to apply creative skills to their painting process. Mayor Bloomberg, who kicks off the program each June at an about-to-be-transformed schoolyard, once said Publicolor proved that “simple acts can make a profound and positive impact on struggling communities, …”

The majority of all Publicolor participants, about 75 percent, go back to unsupervised homes; 90 percent come from families receiving some form of public assistance, says Shuman, who adds that 94 percent of those actively enrolled in Publicolor programs not only finished high school last year (compared to 42 percent of their peers), but 89 percent also went on to college (vs. 47 percent who did not).

The cost to bring Paint Club into a school? $86,000 per school, mostly from private donations but also from the Department of Education. The schools themselves kick in $13,000 of that fee. Shuman says each school pays all of $13 per student (based on total enrollment at the school of about 1,000, not on the number of Paint Club participants) to turn her school from “cold and institutional to warm and motivating.” Of course, not every student wants into Paint Club, whose representatives present the program in classrooms and enlist volunteers.

“About 25 percent sign up,” says Shuman. Eventually. “We don’t give up after the initial visit. We enlist teachers and parents to reach out and persuade, especially to those most at-risk. Peer pressures helps, too.”

So do results. 

“Before Paint Club came in last fall, our school was barren, all chipped paint and white walls," says Brooklyn middle school principal Lisa Reiter. "Paint Club turned Saturday into a community event. Teachers came in to volunteer. Parents came, too.  Even the security guards were excited about the project."

Reiter says not only did Paint Club give students an “improved academic sense of themselves” but they also still stop in the hall to point out, “Hey, there’s the wall I painted.”

Says Shuman: “Hopelessness is the enemy of creativity. As one principal said to me, ‘You have created the home-like environment that my kids wished they actually had at home.’ With minds no longer frozen with fear, teachers can teach and students can learn.”

Color her optimistic. Not without reason.

William Sertl is the former executive editor of and, prior to that, travel editor of Gourmet magazine. Born in St. Louis, he has also worked for Saveur and Travel & Leisure magazines.