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Devin D. Thorpe
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NonProfit Helps Students From Being Dropout

This is a guest post from Ruth Lande Shuman, Founder/President of Publicolor

I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s happening in Baltimore and other cities around our country. The perils of poverty and marginalization are clearly exacting a heavy price, one we have to confront with innovation. At Publicolor, the New York City-based non-profit I founded in 1996, our long-term continuum of programs addresses many of the effects of poverty and dis-empowerment: single-parent households, neglect, and physical and emotional abuse, as well as an absence of after-school programs, role models, belief in education and effective goal-setting. Publicolor empowers struggling students by developing their focus and determination, thereby eliminating hopelessness and anger. Our unique applied-learning model gives students ownership over their projects from beginning to end, fostering a sense of agency and the ability to become their own best advocates. Having witnessed the success of Publicolor over the past 19 years, I can’t help but wonder what cities like Baltimore would be like if Publicolor existed in them. Only by leveling the playing field and encouraging education will we ensure that everyone in our country has a chance to thrive. This is what our country needs most.

As one of the few industrial designers today using design for social change, I am especially interested in the psychological effects of color and environment. Publicolor’s work is grounded in research, and confirms that when one changes an environment, one changes attitudes and behavior. Even in New York City’s outer boroughs, home to some of New York City’s most at-risk communities, anyone walking into a typical public school will notice the oppressive, prison-like interiors: the walls are peeling, cracked, and often littered with graffiti, and the hallways are lifeless with their gray, beige, and off-white tones.

Ruth Lande Shuman

Ruth Lande Shuman

I founded Publicolor to combat the alarmingly high dropout rates in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. Last year, more than 26,000 students failed to graduate on time, and more than 8,000 dropped out of school. Publicolor focuses on the most disconnected and lowest-performing students in our city’s struggling middle and high schools, and engages them in their education by empowering them to transform their dreary schools with warm colors. The result is a student-centric environment where design underscores the importance of education, and where all feel welcomed and energized.

Our programs distinguish themselves by being long-term intensive interventions, a reflection of my belief that meaningful change only happens over a number of years. Typically, Publicolor students begin with our organization in middle school, and progress through the continuum of design-based programs until they graduate high school. Many students stay involved with Publicolor through college; some return to the organization as volunteers and even employees . Currently, 14 of 41 staff members are Publicolor alumni.

This process begins with Paint Club, where middle-school grade students are taught to think critically and creatively about the relationship between color and their environment. Paint Club is just the beginning of these students’ journey with Publicolor. We stay with them long after their initiation into the program, offering an opportunity for training and tutoring at least three days a week over multiple years. One of the most impactful programs is Summer Design Studio – deliberately held at Pratt Institute to help our students feel comfortable in a college setting – a seven-week math and literacy immersion program taught through the scaffold of product design, and an effective antidote to summer learning loss.

Publicolor’s innovative applied learning model works with spectacular results: despite a focus on high-risk students from struggling schools, 100% of Publicolor’s students stayed in school, 100% of Publicolor’s students matriculated on time from 8th to 9th grade and 9th to 10th grade, 97% of our high school seniors graduated on time vs. 68% citywide, and 94% of our high school graduates enrolled in college vs. 51% of their peers from the same schools. Publicolor was recognized with the 2014 National Arts + Humanities Youth Program Award at The White House, and won a 4-star rating from Charity Navigator. Since 1996, we’ve transformed 172 inner-city schools and 205 under-resourced community facilities. We’ve impacted 969,000 students and their parents, and affected almost one million community residents. More importantly, we stay with our students through college. Over a period of 7 to 10 years, Publicolor’s average investment per student is $31,542. This investment ensures that our students, who were once at risk of dropping out, graduate high school on time and matriculate in college or a post-secondary accreditation program. Publicolor’s investment helps students secure the maximum financial aid support and scholarships they deserve as well as catalyzes the investment that colleges will make in them totaling an average of $320,000 per student by the time they graduate. Furthermore, in 2014, MIT economists found that college graduates will earn approximately $500,000 more over their lifetime than a high school graduate. This means that Publicolor’s initial investment of $31,542 yields a return of $820,000 in the form of support from other federal and private agencies and future wages that would be forfeited but for our original support. This is an astounding return on investment of 2600%.

Even with our success, we still have needs. We need more corporate volunteers to paint alongside and mentor our students. We need contributions to help with staff and materials , and business partners to help us reach greater audiences. I invite you to visit us at www.publicolor.org, learn about the many ways you can leave your mark on Publicolor’s world.

About Ruth Lande Shuman

Ruth Lande Shuman is an award-winning industrial designer and the Founder/President of Publicolor.

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