Brooklyn students tackle social ills, one bench at a time

Representatives of the Prospect Park Alliance, a supporter of the CEI project, admire the murals that middle school students painted. Fifth- to ninth-grade students from eight public schools have worked on the benches since late January. Photo Credit: Li Yakira Cohen

Murals with calls to action now line the walkway of Prospect Park Parade Grounds.

Representatives of the Prospect Park Alliance, a supporter of the CEI project, admire the murals that middle school students painted. Fifth- to ninth-grade students from eight public schools have worked on the benches since late January.
Representatives of the Prospect Park Alliance, a supporter of the CEI project, admire the murals that middle school students painted. Fifth- to ninth-grade students from eight public schools have worked on the benches since late January. Photo Credit: Jeff Neumann

Surrounded by sports fields and running tracks, eight benches hand-painted by Brooklyn students now sit along the walkway of Prospect Park Parade Grounds — each representing a call to action for social change.

Fifth- to ninth-grade students from eight public schools have worked on the benches since late January. The groups of students from each school worked with a special teaching artist to pick a social issue, and design a mural to depict the change they want to see. Issues range from homelessness, gun violence, gender and age equality to self-love and appreciation.

Thirteen-year-old Jabari Yates, a seventh-grader at M.S. 582 Magnet School for Multimedia, Technology and Urban Planning, said their group focused on the word “precious” to represent the message of all calls for social action.

“We wanted to study equality and acceptance of all because everybody matters, no matter their race, gender, ethnicity, or whatever status you may possess. Everybody’s special in their own way. We’re all precious,” he said. “I want the whole school to know they’re OK and they can be whoever they are and they’ll be accepted for it.”

One of the murals created by Brooklyn middle schoolers as part of the Center for Educational Innovation's "BENCHMARKS" project.
One of the murals created by Brooklyn middle schoolers as part of the Center for Educational Innovation’s "BENCHMARKS" project. Photo Credit: Li Yakira Cohen

Students at I.S. 281 Joseph B. Cavallaro School focused on gun violence and child abuse, and said that they are scared of people “causing a catastrophe” at their school, while the P.S. 36 group focused on encouraging those who are homeless or are addicted to drugs or alcohol to seek help.

“We’re trying to turn negatives into positives,” said 11-year-old Moniesh Davis, a fifth-grader at P.S. 36, of his school’s focus on homelessness and drug addiction. “I see it around my neighborhood. … We need to help people who are struggling.”  

The project is part of the inaugural CEI BENCHMARKS program by the Center for Educational Innovation, a New York City-based nonprofit that promotes reform for public education. The BENCHMARKS program is a city-wide initiative, that includes more than 30 schools and nearly 750 public school students throughout the five boroughs. Throughout the semester, students learned the history and practice of public art, as well as the facts and statistics of the social issue they chose to focus on.

The program’s focus on middle school students is intended to give children a voice regarding the issues they see around them every day, said CEI Director of Arts Education Alexandra Leff.

“The age in middle school is really the age where it’s a big transition for young people,” Leff said. “To be able to empower them to realize that they can make a difference in this world and empower themselves and really affect change in many different ways.”

The groups of students worked with a special teaching artist to pick a social issue.
The groups of students worked with a special teaching artist to pick a social issue. Photo Credit: Li Yakira Cohen

Benches from all participating schools were displayed in Washington Square Park on May 30. P.S. 373 Brooklyn Transition Center special education and art teacher Tara Jarvis said that the program means a lot to students, especially when they see the community’s positive response to their semesterlong project.

“They had the big event in Washington Square Park, and the next day I saw some of my students that normally shy away and wear hoods on their heads come in confident, no hoods on, talking,” she said. “It seemed like that really changed how confident they were in themselves. … I think a lot of schools should have access to this program.”

Each borough will also have their own 11 a.m. unveiling ceremony within the next week: The Bronx on June 7 at Mullaly Park; Queens on June 10 at 21st Street Plaza, Manhattan on June 12 at Tompkins Square Park; and Staten Island on June 13 at North Shore Esplanade. All benches will remain in their respective spots through mid-September, when they will then be placed back with students at their schools.

Li Yakira Cohen