Through the mural-emblazoned concrete steps to Oakland High School march many of the reasons public schools in scores of communities across the country are struggling.
Bearing backpacks, skateboards, stenciled T-shirts, and the latest in shoewear, these students bring 27 different languages and cultures into the classroom each day.
Yet the murals here tell a story of success.
In an era when many schools place growing faith in computers and the standardization of tests and performance, art is providing a universal language and effective teaching tool at this underperforming urban school.
The approach is gaining favor in other schools, too, though the back-to-art movement remains miniscule in the overall scheme of things.
Indeed, art's strong role in education here is in striking contrast to the subject's disappearing act in many public schools over the past two decades.
Today's approach isn't to offer a class or two aimed at the artistically gifted. It's a broader effort that embodies the ethos of art, using it as a philosophy and framework for classes ranging from US history to geometry.
The emphasis is on visual, tactile, "make something" learning. And at a school rich in languages and poor in reading skills, like Oakland High, that method is surprisingly effective, say educators.
"Art personalizes and imprints knowledge," says Judi Yeager, co-director of Oakland High's art "academy" program, which has 170 of the school's 2,100 students. "You manipulate and process information in a different way than when you're just a receptor."
There is still plenty of reading and writing. But whether it's geometry or English, teachers attempt to make the subject visual and ask students to do something creative with their knowledge. One thing each graduating art academy class does is decorate the school exterior with a mural.
Success so far
Despite its colorful facade, Oakland High is an underachiever even within the context of California's underachieving public school system. Some 20 percent of the starting senior class each year do not graduate.
Yet those in the art-focused program, which encompasses subjects like history, English, and math, had a graduation rate of 100 percent last June.
With many schools headed down a track of more standardized tests and exit exams, Oakland High's art program is running somewhat against the grain. But those involved with this program are convinced pupils become better and more active learners. And they expect that to pay dividends on tests, too.
The arts program here, about four years old, is part of a nationwide academy movement, which aims to create smaller communities within schools. Students in these academies stay together through many of their classes and grade levels. And each group's course of study has a common framework - whether art, the environment, or technology.
There are only a handful of art academies in California, but their number is growing because of encouraging results, says Susan Tidyman of the California Partnership Academies, a state agency that provides grants to successful academy programs.
A universal language
One of the advantages of art for a diverse and multilanguage student body like that at Oakland High is that it provides a universal language.
"We use visual art as a language," says Wanda Broussard, a teacher and a fellow director of the Oakland High program. Not only does art cut through language and reading barriers, it's also an "equalizing" force that can transcend the student hierarchy that often develops based on English proficiency, she points out.
In the US history class, for instance, students must learn the key events of the 1920s. But as part of the arts program, students go one step further: They sift the events to the ones they consider the most significant and then fashion them into something three-dimensional.
One student made a miniature grocery bag containing packages depicting events of the decade, ranging from the invention of the first wireless phone (1923) to the era of Prohibition. Another created a paper mobile, from which dangle illustrations of some of history's greatest moments.
The final project in the history class puts together teams of three students (writer, editor, and artist) who produce a history-based children's book for the third-grade class at a nearby elementary school.
The final in the world-culture class requires each student to pick a culture, create a mask and costume, and make some sort of presentation about that culture. And in math, a workbook of M.C. Esher's mind-bending geometric art is used.
In many cases, the art approach simply means requiring students to apply knowledge in some concrete fashion. As Broussard puts it, "if you can't use it, you haven't learned it."
Chiewehoy Saetern is testimony to the value of the arts program at Oakland High.
Born in Thailand and a US resident for only four years, Chiewehoy speaks English haltingly. But across the wall of one classroom, he is producing a history mural. He's had no formal training or classes in art, per se, but he's found a language he can understand and use by visualizing and painting what he's learned.
"It just makes sense to me," says Chiewehoy. "I can feel it and nobody has to tell me anything."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society