A radical makeover at Wahluke Junior High

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Emry Dinman Artist Izaya Colson stands with one of his murals that adorns the walls of Wahluke Junior High in Mattawa.

The project was, in many ways, making the best out of a bad situation. The Wahluke School District wasn’t running a bond this year due to concerns that it would fail, which meant that there was no room in the budget to build a school to replace Wahluke Junior High.

But the school needed a new look. Enter — Izaya Colson, an artist with a flair for the radical that specializes in murals. At an open house Monday, Wahluke opened its doors to hundreds of parents and students trying to memorize where their classrooms were and who would be their teachers, all the while milling between dozens of wild, modern paintings.

Colson’s graffiti-accented murals touch every corner of the junior high — minus the bathrooms, one teacher noted with disappointment. Hallways were decorated with homages to the subjects taught in the adjoining classrooms, such as illustrated phases of the moon in the science hall and a dynamic pythagorean theorem painted on one corner of the math hall.

Administrative offices, counselor’s rooms and classrooms are also decked out in murals, ranging from aspirational quotes in a funky font to an apparating raven flying towards the jet black words of Edgar Allan Poe.

Inspired by spray painted artwork adorning the walls of Ron Clark Academy, a private school in Atlanta, Ga. frequented by Wahluke Junior High teachers, English Language Arts teacher Autumn Harlow discovered Colson’s work and recruited him to come paint a few classrooms.

But what started as a couple classrooms over Spring Break quickly ballooned into a larger project. The reactions from kids coming to class were enough to spur school administrators to look toward something bolder — murals across the entire school.

“It shows that you care about them, that we take the time and effort and money to put into something like this,” Autumn said.

Dusty Wirtzberger, a special education math teacher and Joe Wirtzberger, a special education reading and writing teacher, have been blown away by the artwork that appeared on their walls.

“We have an awesome principal that allowed us to not just create engaging classroom lessons, but engaging classroom environments as a whole,” said Dusty. “We’re able to show kids not just what we see as important, but what they see as important.”

The Wirtzbergers are excited to see kids being more interested in coming to class.

“It’s just a cool place to be, and if they’re going to be in here, being interested in any little thing can help,” said Joe.

“I don’t know the percentage of people who will start painting because of this, but I know some people will start painting because of this.” said Colson. “It’s hard to put into words, but that’s a really cool feeling.”

While the excitement from kids, parents and teacher is a good first step, the school will be waiting to see how the school’s makeover affects student behavior and engagement, said Andrew Harlow, principal at the junior high.

Harlow hopes to start seeing positive data in the coming months. School opened Tuesday.

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