Muralists transform Laurel charter school into global venture

At Monarch Global Academy, learning begins the minute students walk into the main entrance, where they're immersed among the stars painted on the walls and planets dangling from the ceiling.

Spaceship control panels are painted above the doorways on opposite walls, giving students a view of outer space from the cockpit. Through another set of doors into the lobby, students are back on earth in a straw field, with two wind turbines collecting renewable energy.

More colorful murals throughout the school transport visitors around the world, educating children through culture as part of an organizational philosophy called transformation education, also known as TranZed.

The tuition-free Monarch Academy public charter schools are also located in Baltimore City, Glen Burnie and Annapolis. The Laurel school, on Brock Bridge Road, and Annapolis school follow the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme curriculum, which promotes a global perspective in classroom instruction; while the Baltimore City and Glen Burnie schools use a project-based learning instructional model. Art installations and murals are used in each school and designed for the specific community.

The Children's Guild, an educational management organization, operates Monarch schools. Serving kindergarten through eighth grade, Laurel residents of Anne Arundel County are eligible for enrollment if they live in the Brock Bridge, Maryland City or Jessup elementary school attendance areas. Children who aren't admitted through a lottery will be placed on a waiting list until seats become available.

Children's Guild president and CEO Andrew Ross said the TranZed school model uses culture to create a flexible environment for students to learn and "think in context" about responses to daily situations. The Children's Guild and Monarch schools are affiliates of the TranZed Alliance parent organization, which works to transform education in the school system through faculty, instructional methodology, environment and outcomes.

Art education in public schools has drastically changed since the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, according to Ross, when walking into a school was more like "walking into a factory."

"Now that knowledge is exploding at an exponential rate and the economic message is 'connectedness,' schools need to be designed to prepare students for the interconnected world we live in," Ross said.

Plain walls do very little to stimulate young minds and might hinder students' desire to learn, Ross said. The main job of schools today is no longer limited to education.

Murals were one way to ditch outdated teaching methods and express culture through art as a building block, as teachers harness children's individuality, Ross said.

Ross said cultures may vary from country to country, but every community is part of the larger, global society with shared ideals.

"When you stop to think about it, all of us are made of the elements on the periodic table," Ross said. "We're all part of this world. So many ideas of music, art, inventions and animals have evolved and crossed continents."

These and similar themes were used to design and create the murals inside the Monarch Global Academy in Laurel.

Continental exploration

About two weeks before school starts, muralist and painter Maura Dwyer wandered through the European- and South American-themed hallways at Monarch Global Academy to touch up some spots on the murals. The Baltimore resident owns a mural business, Spectrum Studio, and has been working on the project since it began under muralist and painter Nancy Scheinman and her company, NS Studios, in 2015.

Following Scheinman's retirement that same year, Dwyer said she continued the project alongside fellow painters Hanna Moran, Mary Grace Corpus and Lindy Swan. The muralists worked closely with the Children's Guild, school principal Donna O'Shea and curriculum developer Beth Matthews during the design process to create a connection between the artwork and curriculum.

Dwyer said the project, which began in 2015, will wrap up on the first floor before school starts Sept. 5 and move to the second floor, where walls remain bare. The artists hope to complete the second-floor murals by the end of fall.

Assistant muralists Sarah Robbins and Xinmei Tansey also joined the team this summer to help. The group works on the project throughout the year, Dwyer said, completing most of the painting during summer breaks.

"[The murals] are organized based on how each part of the school functions and how we can highlight that function and make it more special and fun," Dwyer said. "In these long hallways where all the classrooms are, the overall theme is to feel like you are almost traveling the world in a loop."

The first floor takes students through Europe, Oceania, South America and Africa. In coming weeks, the team will begin painting murals on the second floor, which will focus on Asian and North American themes.

Science and technology inspired the main entrance's outer space theme, shifting to environmental features in the lobby, including alternative energy sources and volcanoes. Around the corner, a large-scale mural is painted on a wall inside the kinesiology lab, which is what the school calls its gymnasium. The muralists painted children performing different physical activities, like hiking, leaping and swinging.

An international market theme, organized by the northern and southern hemispheres, was designed for the cafeteria further down the hall. People of various ethnicities are depicted selling and eating food in different regions of the world.

"It connects culture to environment," Dwyer said. "Making cross-cultural connections throughout the school in addition to talking about the environment and global citizenship and civic duties is really important to this school. Our job is to keep in mind the student population and make sure that's reflected and celebrated in the murals."

O'Shea said Monarch Global has a very diverse student population. According to last year's enrollment statistics, she said, the student population was 55 percent African American; 20 percent Hispanic; 15 percent white; 5 percent multiracial; 4 percent Asian; and 1 percent American Indian.

The school opened with bare walls under O'Shea's leadership in 2014.

The connection between each grade's curriculum and the murals is fantastic, she said. For example, one unit taught in kindergarten, called "Sharing the Planet," highlights the effect people have on the ocean's coral reefs, which are captured in the Oceania mural.

"Your environment is your first teacher," O'Shea said. "When a child comes in here and they see it, it makes them excited about learning [and] they want to know more about it. It's visually attractive and it draws them in. It just makes it a great learning environment for all kids and teachers."

Back in the European-themed hallway, Moran dipped a paintbrush in a can of discolored water and then made a palette of new colors for a mural of a young girl riding a bicycle. The girl is depicted traveling from Europe to South America as her physical features change between the two countries.

To Moran's right, Corpus stood a few feet taller on a ladder, where she painted an Amtrak-style train.

"We know that the murals aren't going to be a textbook," Moran said. "It's more complementary, so if a kid is walking through the hall, sees something and asks a question, there's applicable content and answers in there. We don't just want to paint fluff on the wall that doesn't have a lot of meaning."

One of Moran's favorite murals was Oceania. Students are transported under the sea with several species of fish, coral and sea turtles. On the opposite wall, an Aboriginal tribe is shown in its Australian village.

Corpus said those two murals were a large part of her schedule as she researched information about coral bleaching as well as the languages and artistic culture of Aboriginal tribes.

"I think it turned out really well," Corpus said. "We had to find shortcuts for certain things but still made it look nice. I think we did a good job without sacrificing a lot of design, which was a worry at the beginning."

The muralists agreed they're eager to begin the second-floor work. In addition to decoration, Dwyer said the art tells stories and shares new ideas to anyone who walks by.

"It plants seeds for students when they come into the school every day and spend time with different imagery on the wall," she said. "We're hoping when they see the murals they walk by every day, that will inspire them to pursue learning and spark their curiosity."

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