Pia Lopez / plopez@sacbee.com

Students and parents gather at Washington Elementary, a Sacramento City Unified school that closes at the end of the school year, to paint a mural that celebrates their history and prepares them for the transition ahead.

Pia Lopez: Mural is catharsis as parents, students prepare for transition

Published: Monday, Apr. 29, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A
Last Modified: Monday, Apr. 29, 2013 - 7:07 am

I attended four different elementary schools when I was growing up. At two of them, I entered during the middle of a school year.

I remember vividly my anxious first day at the new school in fourth grade.

The kids all seemed like giants and a tug-of-war ensued between two girls, "Let the new girl sit next to me" they clamored. It all worked out.

My experience was nothing compared to children who grow up in military families – as my mother did – moving many, many times.

All youngsters have some experience with school transitions. Moving from elementary to middle to high school can be nerve-wracking – with new kids, new teachers and new routines.

But the transition of closing schools and merging them with others, as many districts in our region have had to do in the last decade, adds different stresses. While kids don't make the transition alone – going to a nearby school with friends and neighbors from their old school – they also see controversy swirling among adults who are angry and sad.

Sacramento City Unified is one district in our region that is going through that with seven elementary schools.

A week ago Sunday, I visited Washington Elementary School in midtown, which had dropped from 349 K-6 students in 1996 to 219 this year – just 31 students per grade. It closes at the end of this school year – 104 students will attend William Land Elementary and 40 will go to Theodore Judah Elementary. Parents of 40 students have chosen other schools.

Students, parents, teachers, staff, principal and artist Milton Bowens all have come together to help craft a positive transition. Out in force on Sunday were the sixth-graders. Though these 30 kids are moving on to middle school, they are working with their kindergarten buddies and all the younger children to help make the journey to new schools.

Their teacher, Kim Williams, has been a dynamo over the years at teaching students about dynamism in our ever-changing world – from seed to plant to table with a school garden, the study of motion in math and science, even literally going to the end of the earth to learn about the effects of climate change on the South Pole. No place, even Antarctica, Williams' students know, is frozen in time.

Bowens is well known for collage-style paintings and prose that show the triumph of human spirit over adversity and injustice. He already had worked with Washington Elementary students on two public exhibits. For the school transition, Bowens, students, parents and staff created a six-panel mural that captures the new journey. The sixth-graders also are writing poems and letters for their buddies that will be placed behind the mural and read out in six years.

At the center of the mural is a butterfly, a wonderful symbol of transformation – taking wing with beauty and grace. The team had in mind the line, "Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly." In between is a complex of images: an Indian dreamcatcher carrying students' hopes and dreams; a recycling sign to evoke the school's Project Green; a peace sign; and eagle wings, traditionally representing power and balance.

The framework of the mural is puzzle pieces, symbolizing coming apart and reconnecting as a whole.

One puzzle piece is devoted to a quote by polar explorer turned environmentalist Robert Swan: "The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it" – a call to action to be problem solvers. Williams had joined Swan last February for his annual two-week International Antarctic Expedition with people from 22 nations.

Of the mural and the school transition, Williams said, "It is amazing how things have come full circle." Now three panels will go to William Land, and three to Theodore Judah. Students at those schools will paint the missing halves to make each mural whole.

At meetings, parents, students and staff at the three schools are getting to know one another, finding their commonalities and working through concerns – such as bus routes, day care, after-school activities and more.

Clearly, it has been an emotional time. Some families already are looking ahead, while others still struggle to come to terms with the school's closure. Principal Richard Dixon understands that. "The board made its decision," he said. "Our task is to make sure families are treated with care and respect."

It is not helpful when school board members stoke the fires of anger, anxiety and resistance, as Diana Rodriguez did at the April 18 school board meeting. Children, teachers, staff, principals and Bowens have worked extremely hard to transform this difficult school transition into art – and a strong life lesson in resilience. Individual board members should do their part, too.

Change, I know from my own midyear school transitions, is unsettling, but also an opportunity for growth.

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