For students from Lawrence, Massachusetts, the answer to “What is education?” comes best through the arts — painting, drawing, photography, narrative, poetry, music, and film – and through their own context as passionate learners in a historically immigrant, low-income community north of Boston.
Eight Lawrence students, along with their adult mentors from Elevated Thought and the Mayor’s Health Task Force, came to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in Washington, D.C. in mid-May for the opening of the students’ art exhibit, on view at ED through June. They also came to demonstrate what student voices can contribute to a community’s renewal and to learn from ED’s leaders about how best to exercise their Youth Bill of Rights.
Lawrence, with a population of 76,000, has a colorful but bleak history: governmental turbulence; high poverty, unemployment and crime; and failing schools. When Lawrence schools were placed under state receivership in 2011, average math and English test scores positioned students in the bottom 1 percent statewide, and the high school dropout rate was 52 percent. In March 2012, Lawrence was described in a Boston magazine article highlighting the city’s drug trade and controversial politics as “the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts.”
By most accounts, Lawrence is rebounding. It has a new superintendent with an ambitious school turn-around plan, test scores are up, and the dropout rate is down. In addition, Lawrence has new leadership, new initiatives, and widespread community involvement in rejuvenation efforts. Still, the students’ visual art reflects a mix of hope and frustration.
Senior Celeste Cruz used paint and markers to create a person of color with a tree sprouting from the figure’s head. “The piece represents knowledge and growth nurtured in the minds of people of all colors,” she explained, including those with skin tones considered “alien” to this country. (About 75 percent of residents and 90 percent of public school students in Lawrence are Hispanic.)
Amaryllis Lopez, a Lawrence High School graduate and Elevated Thought youth leader, made a mixed media piece featuring a woman of color and these words: “Dream Your Way Out of the Nightmare.” “Sometimes your dreams have to transcend your situation — in this case an unsatisfactory education system — in order to be freed, to overcome and to achieve,” she said.
A painting from senior Nicole Garcia contains a brightly colored, abstract head, above which is written, “I’m Brilliant. Yo soy. I am intelligencia.” She created the piece to raise questions about what it means to be “smart” and “intelligent” in modern society.
Student voices, in whatever their form, can broaden adult perspectives, Elecia Miller, project officer for the City of Lawrence Mayor’s Health Task Force, noted during ED’s celebration. “As much as [adults] care about youth in our city, we are not youth, and we do not necessarily know what the issues of the day are, or how to address them.”
This belief undergirds the work of two organizations, both with representatives at the ED gathering, that provide youth empowerment activities:
- Elevated Thought is a Lawrence-based non-profit that serves and develops communities through, among other things, youth engagement; it stresses the arts’ power to generate awareness of social and community issues. Its current youth-driven campaign is “What Is Education? Liberation Through Education.”
- The Lawrence Youth Council, created under the Mayor’s Health Task Force, gives the community’s youths a voice and advocates for their issues.
Students at the opening identified what they want changed in Lawrence schools, including high levels of stress, an insufficiently diverse teaching pool, and not enough opportunities to make choices. These and other concerns grew from a 600-student survey.
“Education is supposed to be freedom from oppression, but in reality we come to class and we feel anxiety, we feel as if our [test score] numbers are our identity,” Junielly Vargas, the youth council’s president, said. “We need [adults] to realize that education is more than numbers, more than books, more than letters on the board — it is life, it is family, it is friends, it is experience.”
With such concerns in mind, these students presented at the art opening their four-part Youth Bill of Rights, which they are disseminating widely to trigger more school improvements:
- Student needs come first. This requires youth leaders to become more involved in decisions about education and to have their voices heard. Marquis Victor, president and executive director of Elevated Thought, explained, “[School officials] make drastic changes each year, and the youth have no idea what is coming. The changes often don’t work. So the youth say, ‘Why don’t [school officials] talk to the youth? They will know what’s best for them.’”
- Students are liberated through their creations. The arts provide students with new ways to see the world. Schools should provide more classes in the arts and incorporate them into the teaching of all subject areas.
- Students’ vision is developed with and through their communities. Toward this end, the bridge between schools and the community needs strengthening.
- Students’ healthy growth is ensured. Greater emphasis on physical, mental and spiritual health can help students learn and mature. Improvements can begin with better school lunches which, one student observed, “look radioactive.”
At the end of the students’ day showcasing the power of their work in the arts to transform thinking about education, Jason Botel, ED’s deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, shared his admiration for the students’ accomplishments, the implementation of their critical thinking skills, and their courage. “You’re giving voice, color and form to your experiences in education and as community members,” he said. “In the process, you’re educating all of us.” He also shared his understanding of what he heard from them – that, while their road forward may be difficult, education and student development are processes in which they will need to exercise their clearly well-developed leadership abilities in order to … keep moving ahead.
Nancy Paulu is an editor and writer in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.
All photos are by U.S. Department of Education photographer Leslie Williams.
The Department’s Student Art Exhibit Program provides students and teachers an opportunity to display creative work from the classroom in a highly public space that honors their work as an effective path to learning and knowledge for all. To visit the exhibits or for information about exhibiting, contact Jackye Zimmermann at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.ed.gov/student-art-exhibit