John Flores was the one who spotted the spot. “Somebody painted red on the blue door,” he said.
John, a 14-year-old ninth grader, had a paint brush and a mission: to bring a bright new color scheme to his school, the Bronx Design and Construction Academy on East 151st Street in the Melrose section of the South Bronx. And the color on his brush was “Rocky Mountain sky,” an arresting color that blended easily with a palette created by the renowned designer Massimo Vignelli.
He was part of a painting crew of students and volunteers (and the principal, Matthew Williams) involved with Publicolor, a nonprofit group that has spruced up 155 schools and 175 homeless shelters, health clinics and other community buildings in New York City since the 1990s. But the construction academy is the first to get specially designed colors from an outside designer like Mr. Vignelli, who is famous for his 1970s-era map of the New York subway system and his shopping bags for Bloomingdale’s, among other things.
The school opened in 2011 in the building that had long housed the Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School. Smith had a turbulent history that included a city proposal to close it for poor performance in 2009. While it won a reprieve and improved, according to the city’s Education Department, it now shares the building with the construction academy and a smaller school, Bronx Haven High School. But the building remained as drab as ever.
In came Publicolor, which has a $520,000 two-year contract with the Education Department to paint 10 schools a year. (Publicolor says that covers about $26,000 for each school; the organization raises another $50,000 to $60,000 a school for expenses like insurance and supplies, although the paint is donated. It paints all of the public spaces — hallways, stairways, cafeterias and, in some schools, parts of the classrooms.)
The Education Department says that, like many nonprofit groups that work with students in schools, Publicolor offers “support programs” that help at-risk pupils. “Our maintenance program is separate and apart from our work with nonprofits,” said Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the department. “The maintenance program has its own budget to cover the cost of painting our 1,200 school buildings.”
Publicolor’s founder, Ruth Lande Shuman, saw painting as a way to prepare students for the world of work, and developed “a multiyear continuum” of academic tutoring and after-school workshops that sharpen skills that teenagers may not learn in class.
Cara Spitzer, a Publicolor staff member, said almost 70 percent of the students used commercial painting skills they picked up with Publicolor to earn money in part-time or summer jobs as painters once they went to college. (Students at the beginner level in the program are not paid — they receive prizes. Students who advance to higher levels can earn $30 a week for a three-day-a-week commitment that includes tutoring sessions in addition to painting; the most advanced students are paid by the hour.)
Ms. Shuman said Publicolor programs paid long-term dividends as well: 100 percent of the students in Pubicolor programs went from 8th grade to 9th grade on time, and 100 percent from 9th grade to 10th grade on time. She said 90 percent of the high school seniors in Publicolor programs had graduated on time, compared with 63 percent over all at their schools, and 81 percent had gone on to two- or four-year colleges, compared with 49 percent of their classmates who were not involved with Publicolor. The Publicolor students tended to stay in college, she said, and 67 percent eventually graduated.
When a school is about to be painted, there is usually a vote, and the students decide on the colors. But Ms. Shuman and Mr. Vignelli are old friends, and he made the choices for the construction academy, expanding the Publicolor palette with new colors, like “hot lips,” “orange sky,” “apple crisp,” “lucky charm green” and “salsa.”
“You can see how it was, how drab it was,” Mr. Vignelli said, walking down a hall that was still the old institutional tan.
Jade Williams, 18, was painting “desert sunset” on a bulletin board. “These colors make you be productive,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to come to a school that looks like a jailhouse.”
Mr. Williams, the principal, echoed that idea as he painted “apple crisp” above the door to a stairway. “It’s easier to foster a student-friendly culture when the building is friendly to students,” he said.
He said the student painters were disciplined and detail-oriented. (“They’re all better than me,” Mr. Williams said. “I should just fill the buckets.”) He also said he liked the school’s new look.
“There were a few people who said, ‘Pink, huh?’” he recalled. “I said, ‘It looks great, doesn’t it?’”