More Than Just A Coat of Paint

A school’s environment sends a message about the value of the school’s community and the importance of education. Do drab, dark colors create a different feeling for students and staff than warm and vibrant ones? Can paint transform institutional (at times even prison-like) spaces into safer, more welcoming centers of learning?

Publicolor, a youth development program working in marginalized public schools, partnered with NYU Steinhardt doctoral student Kate Schwartz to answer these questions and more. Schwartz and her team evaluated the influence on the school learning environment of Publicolor’s introductory program, Paint Club, that engages struggling students in their education by teaching them to paint their schools with bright, stimulating colors.

Van Ardsdale High School (before)

Van Ardsdale High School (after)

Schwartz and her team conducted more than 250 interviews with students, teachers, and administrators at five schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan that participated in Paint Club. The majority of interviewees said a school’s physical environment influences the overall atmosphere and learning environment. When asked whether the fresh paint and new colors from Paint Club improved a school’s physical environment, more than half (57 percent) of students liked the new look, while 14 percent were neutral and 29 percent did not like it. Adults were less likely to embrace the bright color palette, but the majority (71 percent) did feel that the colors enhanced the overall school learning environment. Only 8 percent disagreed and 21 percent were neutral.

One adult said, “The whole tone plus the new lights, and the color, you know, makes it more pleasant to come to work.” Some students had similar observations, with one saying that “other schools are blurred, boring – bright colors make people happy and excited to go to school.”

The researchers also observed that students and adults found value in the process itself, commenting – unprompted – on appreciating that the work was done by students and involved a lot of youth development components. In addition, they expressed a desire for more school-specific design elements to be incorporated into the final results.

Taft Claremont High School (before)

Taft Claremont High School (after)

Some aspects of a school environment cannot be improved by paint. Many complained about the presence of bugs and rodents, untenable classroom temperatures, a lack of basic necessities (such as toilet paper), and barely edible school lunches. For some participants, these issues were much more obvious as problems than the wall color.

Guided by the study’s findings, Publicolor has been considering school-specific design elements and engaging more of the school’s adults in the color selection process. Publicolor is pursuing ways to work with the New York City Department of Education to address the concerns that extend “beyond the walls.”

Watch an interview with Kate Schwartz about her research.

This post appears in the following categories: ihdsc