A classic Earth Wind & Fire song says that, “If there ain’t no beauty, you got to make some beauty.” What could be a more worthy place to make some beauty than in a school, a place of learning and social growth for our children? Dark, hostile school environments come alive with color, and children are reaping the benefits from the power of hue both in and out of the classrooms.

“We use color therapeutically. We use color to change attitudes and change behavior,” says Ruth Shuman, founder of Publicolor. “It comes from the premise that if you change the environment, you change the way people are in that environment,” she said.

Publicolor began as a pilot project in 1994. Shuman, who holds a master’s degree in industrial design, was affected by seeing so many public schools that looked more like institutions than facilities to foster creative thinking and learning. She saw schools that were in need of an environmental change. It’s a fact that students learn better in beautiful surroundings, even more so when they are the ones creating that environment. Her first school project was Junior High School 99 at First Avenue and 100th Street.

Shuman did an independent study on the psychological effect of color. “Color has huge power,” she said. “If used carefully and sensitively, it can produce very positive results. We turn prison-like, hostile school environments into warm, welcoming student-centric environments. In the process, with the students doing the painting, we create a sense of community where none had ever existed and we introduce a culture of rigor where none ever existed,” she said.

At the end of each project, students are left with a newly transformed building, a new sense of community and a much greater sense of safety. “Teachers and students overwhelmingly report feeling safer in a Publicolored school. With minds no longer frozen by fear, teachers can teach and students can learn,” Shuman said.

Yellow, not coincidently, is a popular choice. It’s all in the science. Shuman did extensive research on the psychology of color. “I discovered that yellow is a color that helps focus energy. Fabulous in a kitchen, but also in a classroom or in a hallway,” she said.

“I want students to take pride in their school and understand that pursuing their education is an important journey, and if you put them in a building that is neglected, how can they possibly take pride in this journey? It’s not possible. Think about the teachers. They’re being challenged. It’s got to be hard on them, coming into a classroom, 30 kids, many of them angry, upset, and the teacher has to somehow get their attention, get them to be a community and work with them and try to teach them something in a classroom where the paint is peeling, water is dripping, where colors are depressing. I’m a firm believer that the absence of color is not benign,” she said.

Students are involved in the entire process, from choosing the colors to doing the painting. A vote is held for the most popular combinations. There’s a school-wide vote so that everyone gets a say. Before the voting, kids always wanted to know why their schools had Skittles colors. Shuman would ask if they had participated in the vote. “Without responsibility, you don’t get privilege,” she replied. Another lesson learned.

She created a game to teach students about the language of color and to better understand why certain colors would work. Then, when students voted on a particular color, they could do it with a real understanding.

“They become our anti-graffiti posse. The idea is to treat students with respect and teach them to take pride in their environment and respect it in return. It works. Publicolor walls don’t suffer graffiti,” Shuman said. Benjamin Moore donates every drop of paint.

It’s not just students who get down and dirty; corporate volunteers pitch in as well. Students get a rare opportunity to learn from them and ask about career options based on their skills and interest. In turn, the volunteers tell students about their particular jobs and what types of skills are necessary. There’s a lot more going on than just paint. It’s a great way to introduce students to a host of job options they may have never even thought about.

“The favorite part of being in a Publicolor paint club is meeting new people,” Shuman said. “They love the volunteers and they love the fact that these people aren’t being paid to show up. They are coming on their own volition, coming because they care. That’s a powerful message, and it is not lost on our students.”

Shuman found it hard to leave her kids after working with them. She started a touch-up program to keep the relationships going.

“I wanted to be a force greater than the street, so I knew I had to be with them a minimum of three days a week,” she said.

Again, it’s more than just paint. The three-day program includes life-skill workshops, tutoring and painting on Saturdays in schools or in nearby under-resourced community facilities like local health clinics and senior centers, community centers and homeless shelters and even the local police precinct.

“Sometimes the police even come in and help with painting the schools. This is a tremendous opportunity to build trust between two groups that frankly don’t trust each other,” Shuman said.

As the kids got older, the next move was to get them heading in the direction of college and career. Next Steps has the same three-day model, which includes tutoring, career and college prep with two multi-day campus visits, exposing students to college campuses. The program also helps students fully access financial assistance.

“There’s a major disconnect between our expectations of excellence from teachers and students and these environments that we’re putting them in. That’s when the lightbulb went on. If I put a paintbrush in the hands of disaffected students, we’ll change the way their school looks and feels. They’ll develop a sense of pride and ownership, and I’ll be able to talk to them about the importance of education and finishing high school.

“I am proud of the fact that despite our focus on the lower-performing students in our city’s lowest performing schools, in the past three years, not one Publicolor student has dropped out, verses 40 percent of their peers,” she said.

Shuman started a summer design program, held on Pratt’s campus, a seven-week long program where 70 students who are behind grade level are immersed in literacy and math through product design. The program enjoys 94 percent attendance. Students learn while having fun, using programs like InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator. They even learn how to silkscreen.

“There’s no summer slip back. Effectively, we’re adding seven weeks to the school year,” she said. “All of our kids return to school in the fall ahead of where they were, unlike many of their peers. I believe in lengthening the school year, using more of the summer in creative ways to engage our kids in their education,” she said.

Since the program’s inception, it has involved 155 schools and more than 15,000 students, with the largest focus on Brooklyn, followed by the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens.

Shuman talked about how in the early days, kids didn’t have too many nice things to say. “Frankly, it hurt my feelings. I figured out that to appreciate beauty, you really have to let your guard down. These kids couldn’t afford to let their guard down. I realized that once they got to know me and trust me, then they told me, ‘We had to say that we didn’t like it, but we really do like it.’

“We create a safe haven for them. When they’re with us, they can be themselves. I really believe that is one of the reasons that they like being with us. They don’t have to put up all these defenses.”

In 2000, Publicolor won the President’s Service Award, given by President Bill Clinton, the highest such honor for a volunteer organization.

“We’re using color to change attitudes and behavior. We need to have visual beauty around us. It feeds our soul,” Shuman concluded.

To learn more about the Publicolor program, visit www.publicolor.org.