Amid pandemic, student participation crucial in Central Montco Technical High School mural project
PLYMOUTH TOWNSHIP — For the students and staff working on a mural project at Central Montco Technical High School, it’s so much more than an art instillation.
“It allowed us to bring back our community after the whole pandemic, and bringing back everybody to help out and come along,” said Jaiona Johnson, a senior in the school’s teacher academy. “It was really fun. It kind of allowed us to bring each other’s voices back in one piece.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on communities for more than two years. Schools were shuttered over health and safety concerns as educators pivoted to remote learning. Virtual, hybrid and in-person education models were introduced as the ebbs and flows of the ongoing global public health crisis continued.
“I’ve been teaching for 23 years. I’ve never seen the mental health crisis that I see now. The pandemic has in so many ways, on so many levels, upended mental health for everyone,” said Deborah Broderick, a teacher academy coordinator and instructor at Central Montco Technical High School.
The COVID-19 pandemic has produced an uptick in mental health issues for children across the country, according to a report from the American Psychological Association.
“A national survey of 3,300 high schoolers conducted in spring 2020 found close to a third of students felt unhappy and depressed much more than usual,” the American Psychological Association reports, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mural’s origin story
Broderick has been an educator at the Plymouth Township-based school since 2019. She also teaches and earned a doctorate of education from the University of Pennsylvania. It was there she learned about the Penn Consortium for Mental Health and Optimal Development, an initiative tasked with fostering relationships with local schools districts to “bring professional development to schools,” Broderick said.
Central Montco Technical High School joined the consortium in 2019, according to Broderick.
While the “first year focused on trauma-informed practices,” the COVID-19 pandemic prompted virtual participation in 2020 and the need to “support diversity and equity inclusion in school.”
Participants created a staff equity crew in which 10 faculty members participated, according to Katie MacLuckie, an English as a second language teacher at Central Montco Technical High School. MacLuckie also served as co-organizer of the mural project.
But Broderick said that organizers sought to bring the students to the forefront of the 2021-22 school year, launching a student equity crew in January. Twenty-one students are involved, according to MacLuckie. A mural was then proposed for this year’s project for the consortium.
Central Montco Technical High School Executive Director Angela King was thrilled when she first heard of the proposal. This will be the first mural enshrined at the school.
“My first thought was absolutely 100 percent,” she said. “Especially because the students were so involved in it. It was our first year for our student equity crew, our student equity leadership team, and to have them do something so tremendous such as building a mural, and having it relate to community, and equity, and diversity, and mental health awareness, and with the years that we’ve had (there was) no hesitation.”
Representatives from the Penn Consortium reached out to Symone Salib, a Philadelphia-based artist, muralist and educator, to collaborate on the project. With a focus on “public art,” and an interest in mental health, this was something she said she was excited to do.
‘This is a representation of them’
Local educators stressed that students and teachers have faced tremendous difficulties over the past few years and this mural project offered a creative outlet.
“I think what it is is the students have been so disconnected for the last few years with the virtual learning, and COVID, and having to be isolated so much that we were able to bring all of them together on one purpose, which was to design a mural that emulates what the community and what family means to them,” King said.
“It has been paralyzing for lots of teachers,” Broderick said. “This is our third year really dealing with it where we’re so exhausted from intervening that we really wanted to kind of change the conversation, and reframe it to reengagement, reconnection, celebration, getting students to be leaders, to find ways to re-engage in the schools that didn’t have anything to do with curriculum or their program area, but more about being citizens of the school.”
But student participation was crucial.
“I don’t think that this project had it been staff-facilitated would mean even a fraction as much as it does to have the students, and to know this is really a representation of them, and their work, and their ideas, and their voices,” MacLuckie said.
The planning process took several weeks. Salib coordinated with the participating students to get a sense of the artistic process and themes for the mural.
“The entire mural is inspired by them,” Salib said.
Art incorporates mental health, diversity, equity, and inclusion
The entire process from concept to prep took nearly two months, according to Salib, who sought to incorporate mental health into the artwork. The mural’s colors are black, blue, red, and yellow.
While those are representative of the school colors of participating schools affiliated with Central Montco Technical High School, Salib noted that red, blue and yellow are primary colors.
When talking to a therapist, she found that there are also primary and secondary feelings. She noted that primary colors are “your initial feelings that you feel at any given moment.”
“This piece really only has primary colors, but I think thinking about it in that lens, if we’re talking about mental health, and we’re talking about being honest, and being upfront, and being more open and breaking down the stigma of so much of that comes with being really honest about your primary feelings, and not being reprimanded for them and being able to express them in a way that’s real,” she said.
Along with portraits of the students, the mural featured symbols representing the 16 different educational programs offered at the schools.
“This mural, with all the different icons and all the different careers really brings the whole school together in one picture,” King said.
The mural also showcased a symbolic message: “Celebrate the highs – hold on during the lows – they all have purpose.”
“I think that particular quote it’s quite meaningful for this time that we’re living through,” Broderick said.
The words resonated also with several student equity crew members.
“Everyone needs some motivation,” said Kylis Pendleton, a senior in the tech school’s early childhood education program. “The wording, the quotes that we picked, sometimes some people might need to come into school, and some people have bad days.”
“Some people must have went to school, and then they come here, and they see the quote, it’s like ok we’ve got to celebrate the highs and lows,” Pendleton said. “I think it’s important. I think every school should have something to remind them that everything’s OK.”
After taking in the meaning behind the words, Johnson said she found the message to be very impactful.
“You always celebrate the experiences that you had,” Johnson said. “It could have been bad, but it turns out good, so you always celebrate the best things that happen to you. A lot of things that you do have purpose. There’s a reason why you’re doing a certain thing.”
Danielle Cabbibo, a senior in the tech school’s teacher academy program, agreed.
“I think for me, like especially with COVID and everything – holding on during the lows,” Cabbibo said. “They all have purpose. I feel like you learn from the lows so it’s just kind of bringing meaning to everything and I feel like that’s a good message to send to younger kids.”
In addition to the mural’s mental health aspect, participants strived to incorporate the essential theme of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Our students come from over 16 different high schools, and over four major school districts,” King said. “So we are a community within ourselves, and at central Montco we feel that, and we want, and we strive to have central Montco be the community hub where everybody is welcome here, and that this is the place to come to, and you feel welcome.”
“In my opinion, I feel like it’s a good thing that we’re doing this because it lets people younger than us come here and actually show we’re a diverse school,” Johnson said. “We don’t exclude you out of anything no matter what your race is. It’s a good thing to let the younger kids know when they come here to know that before they were here the people who made this up wanted to let them know but we did it through words and drawings.”
The materials needed for the 14×15 mural consisted of exterior wall paint and mural cloth panels, according to Salib. Once the mural was prepped and outlined, about 50 students got to work painting during set sessions each day over the course of the past week.
Ava Augustine, a fellow senior studying in the teacher academy, said she appreciated the opportunity to be back in-person with her classmates.
“I’m kind of glad to be back in the classroom because I feel like it’s easier to learn in the classroom, and have that engagement, and also be able to see people, and have your friends around. Being on virtual was kind of lonely,” Augustine said.
Down a colorfully decorated hallway lined with posters, students were invited to silk screen an image of their respective educational program. Music could be heard playing as students mingled outside the painting room.
“I think it feels like a celebration after a really hard couple years, and to watch everyone be able to reconnect over something that’s just good,” MacLuckie said. “It’s just good and it’s a representation of our students and their voices and their ability to reconnect and collaborate. It just feels like a culmination of a lot of good after a lot of hard.”
A ceremony revealing the completed instillation of the mural is expected to take place next week. As it becomes apart of the fabric of the learning institution, educators observed the “legacy” it will leave for years to come.
“For me it feels almost like a stamp in time, and the words that the design all together it feels like a very important year and to be able to mark that and to be able to talk about that and see that representation for however long it’s up there is very cool,” MacLuckie said.