A transformation that began with a series of striking murals painted onto the blank white walls of Jose de Diego Middle School has finally reached the classroom.
The school in Wynwood will debut a new arts magnet program when classes begin Aug. 24, culminating an effort that began last winter when internationally renowned artists donated their time and talent to cover Jose de Diego with massive murals.
The specialized program amounts to a major culture shift from the years Jose de Diego went without an art teacher — even as the neighborhood around the school grew to become Miami’s arts district.
“It’s phenomenal that artists who usually are starving artists, teachers who you can tell care about their kids, a principal who you can tell really loves her children and a community made this happen,” said Robert de los Rios, a Wynwood arts activist and promoter who brought in artists to paint the Jose de Diego murals.
There are now 75 murals at the school, with more planned. In a hallway, the realistic eyes of a child peer out. At the entrance, a colorful owl perches alongside the message, “This is a sacred place.”
Along with the community’s famous Wynwood Walls, Jose de Diego’s murals have become a stop for tour buses and visitors. The school district plans to bring kids from across the county to visit.
Michelle Perez was a sixth-grader when artists took up residence in her school during Art Basel and Art Week last year. Though she always liked to draw, Michelle had dreams of becoming a veterinarian. Then the 12-year-old watched as Jose de Diego became an outdoor museum. Her favorite is a mural by Miami artist Magnus Sodamin with “big splatters of colors and flowers,” Michelle said.
Heading into seventh grade, Michelle now says she wants to be a graphic designer. She has enrolled in the magnet program to pursue her passion.
“I draw cartoon characters,” she said. “I’m good at it.”
That’s exactly the kind of impact artists hoped to have at Jose de Diego, and de los Rios said it couldn’t have happened without April Thompson-Williams. Williams became principal at the school last year and was open to the idea when a teacher suggested partnering with the local groups to paint the outer walls. She also hired an art teacher for the first time in years.
For Williams, the push for more arts programs has been personal. Her own daughter attended a Miami-Dade arts magnet and is now a design engineer.
“I’m only doing for my students what I did for my own [daughter],” Williams said. “If they never had that opportunity or exposure, then how can they know this is something they want to do?”
The school only has room for about 50 magnet students this year. So far, just over 30 are enrolled. It is the fifth middle school arts magnet launched by the Miami-Dade County school system and is open to students across the district.
De los Rios hopes to expand the program at Jose de Diego through a project he started called Reimagining the Arts in Wynwood (RAW). He has set an ambitious goal of $500,000 and branched out to other schools. A mural began going up at Miami Sunset Senior High on Wednesday, he said, thanks to artist Santiago Rubino.
“We’ve at least begun to achieve our goal. It’s from zero to something now,” he said.
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