It was a cool day for August, which was lucky for the five students busy painting a mural in a courtyard of asphalt and brick. After a long period of learning alone from computer screens, the students were working together to add a burst of color to their school building in the West Bronx, the Theatre Arts Production Company School, or TAPCo.
The mural is one of about 200 going up at schools across New York City, funded by $25,000 grants to each school through the city’s Artist Corps, a recovery program through the Department of Cultural Affairs that has sent nearly 400 artists to summer school sites. Mayor Bill de Blasio has touted the corps as reminiscent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which funded arts and cultural projects to help lift the country out of the Great Depression.
Artists and students are working together on the installations during the education department’s ambitious Summer Rising program — a mix of summer school and camp. After two school years interrupted by COVID, the program intends to get students caught up academically but also provide emotional support and rekindle social connections.
The mural at TAPCo is about 10 feet wide and almost a story tall. Led by the artist Tova Snyder, who also led the installation of another, 4,000-square foot mural at the school, the class kicked off at the beginning of summer with team-building exercises.
Snyder has completed public art projects around the world. At TAPCo, her goals were to get students collaborating and — after a school year spent largely static in front of computer screens — to get them moving.
“We’ve tried to emphasize working together and communication because they’re used to being at home,” Snyder said. “It’s also to get up and get physical.”
She paired up students who worked together to mix complementary colors. They passed around drawings, each building onto what the last student had added. They put on music, rolled a banner out on the floor, and created whatever came to mind, moving around to a new spot every time the music stopped.
Most of the students in summer school at TAPCo were required to attend because they were at risk for repeating a grade, and most learned exclusively from home last year, said Principal Ron Link.
That was the case for Angel Tirado, a 13-year-old rising eighth grader. He fell behind in math while logging into class from his laptop, alone in his bedroom. “It wasn’t easy studying it online, because online made everything a lot harder — all the technology and stuff,” he said.
Angel learned remotely last year because his father is at high-risk from complications from the coronavirus — he previously suffered from a collapsed lung. But now Angel is vaccinated, getting caught up in math, and happy to be out of the house. Earlier this week, he sat cross-legged on the ground and added sky-blue paint to the mural.
“It feels better now that I can interact with students and other kids,” Angel said. “Ever since quarantine, you couldn’t make friends.”
‘It was daunting’
The school bumps against a busy avenue lined with auto shops and a parking lot topped with spiraling barbed wire. A pile of yellow police tape lay on the sidewalk corner. But on a recent afternoon, the streets around the campus were bustling in a quintessential Bronx summer scene: fire hydrants sprayed water into the streets and passersby bobbed their heads to old-school hip-hop, born in the borough, blaring out of man’s portable speaker wheeled in a handcart.
It has been a long, hard school year. The TAPCo campus is in a ZIP code where one in eight residents have been diagnosed with COVID and one out of every 234 have died — both figures that are higher than the city average. Illness and loss brought on food and housing instability for many families and the school learned first-hand the dangers of the virus.
Shortly after school buildings shut down in March 2020, Link put on a protective suit and erected a plastic barrier in his car so he could drive one of his teachers, who was sick with COVID, to the hospital. The teacher was one of at least three who caught the virus. They all survived, Link said.
He has helmed the school since 2012, working to overcome a controversial history, including the removal of a former principal nearly a decade ago after an investigation found she altered student records.
More recently, the city’s report cards show the TAPCo is helping many of its lowest-performing middle school students make progress on state tests. In high school, the graduation rate in 2020 was 77% — about four points higher than the average across the Bronx.
Link has doggedly pursued grants to expand programming at the school, including a multi-million dollar rooftop garden that doubles as an outdoor performance space. Fragrant peaches grow on trees and raised garden beds produce cherry tomatoes that Link described as sweet “like candy.” He said the garden was a “godsend” during the last school year, providing outdoor space and fresh air that made it safer for students to gather.
TAPCo’s focus on the arts gave students a powerful outlet to process not only the health crisis, but also historic demonstrations for social justice. The school’s admissions page is full of artwork created by students while they mostly learned from home — about 77% of students were enrolled in remote instruction, according to the principal. Much of what they created features melancholy colors and pained expressions: A blurry image of a screaming boy. A sky streaked with lightning. An image of George Floyd with his last words before succumbing to an officer’s knee on his neck.
“There was a proliferation of artistic expression of what it was like living in an altered state,” Link said. “It was daunting. It was cold and sobering, but I think we created a vibrant — as vibrant as anyone could — community online.”
‘Not just another school in the Bronx’
As the school prepares to welcome back all of its students this year, the artwork, which is being installed at the student entrance, will greet them. With soft blues, lavender and pinks, it matches the colors of Snyder’s previous mural, which features the message “I like you the way you are” painted across the top of the school building like a banner.
The school is getting another major upgrade soon, installing sound and lighting equipment on their rooftop performance space so students can study those skills in an outdoor setting and earn professional certification by the time they graduate.
If the last 18 months have proven anything, though, it is that the virus continues to upset plans. The delta variant is driving positivity rates up and the Bronx is the lowest vaccinated borough in the city. Despite parent protests, the city is so far not planning to offer a remote option.
As Link awaits COVID-related guidance from the city, he is not counting on putting on shows with singing and musical performances like in the past. One teacher has already asked for a plexiglass enclosure around her piano.
For now, students are racing to finish their mural by the time summer school ends in mid-August. On a recent afternoon, each had their own task: Two mixed paints until the colors were just right. Another sanded down the rough wall. Someone else divided their artwork into a grid, with each numbered block representing a different image or hue to be painted. Then they all dipped their paint brushes and got to work under Snyder’s watchful eye.
“They love to paint. So for them this is a real treat, to actually be painting on the school walls. They know about the permanence,” she said.
Their mural features the school’s mascot — a tiger — and someone watering plants like those sprouting on their rooftop garden. In the center of it all, above the door, there’s a sun.
That’s to show that the students walking underneath it are stars, said Anjeline Polanco, a 14-year-old rising freshman.
“We wanted it to represent the school in a way, and the community,” she said. “This school is actually here for the kids. It’s for the kids to express themselves. It’s not just another school in the Bronx.”