By Samantha Katzman
Ten years ago, when Scott Schmerelson arrived as the new principal of the school now called Johnnie L. Cochran Middle School, he knew he was facing a major challenge to turn around the school’s poor academic performance.
He also knew that he wouldn’t get very far until he fixed the school’s abysmal appearance, its exterior defaced by graffiti.
“I like things to look nice,” he said, “and when I came here and saw those awful looking pictures I said ‘we have to do something about this.’”
With test scores improving and kids more engaged in the classroom, there was only one thing missing among students and staff: morale. Enter Raul Baltazar.
The school’s physical “rehabilitation” started with Schmerelson and Baltazar’s initial contact. At first, the concept was for Baltazar and his partner Melly Trochez to simply renovate the school, but with heavy backlash by taggers and vandals, it was decided that they would create entirely new works for and with the students.
With timing and funding on their side, the plan was set in motion for Baltazar to begin work on six murals around the school.
For Baltazar, a master of many mediums, murals have a special significance for him. He was inspired by the murals he describes as “eye candy” he saw every day on his walks to school growing up in El Sereno.
“It was a public practice to teach and exhibit,” he said.
Baltazar, Trochez, and a team of volunteers spent eight months designing and painting the murals. They wanted to depict concepts and ideas that spanned many cultures and ethnicities.
“You don’t want to leave people isolated,” Baltazar said.
Chinese, Egyptian, Tibetan, Mexican, Mayan, Ndebele, Chumash, and Tonga cultures come together to paint a portrait of the modern urban landscape.
“Not only are we trying to beautify,” he said, “but as much as we have to create a presence, to transform the space.”
Baltazar has kept in contact with the school, and when the economy is more forgiving, would like even to do more work with them. But for now, the goal is to maintain the physical murals as well as maintaining the education for the children in the school.
What started as a desperate attempt to save a floundering school has resulted in a full-bodied makeover, improving more than just the kids’ test scores.
Before these changes, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School (previously Mt. Vernon Middle School) was in a state of decline. Test scores were so low, the school was almost kicked out of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Recruited by the superintendent at the time, during the last decade Schmerelson has been helping dig the school out of a load of troubles.
Modernization and improvements to materials, class sizes and class structure has resulted in an increase of 200 points in the Academic Performance Index (API), with scores increasing every year. But Schmerelson didn’t stop there.
“Once you get in the swing of making things nice, you know you look around for what else you can make nice.”
Located on the fringe of the Crenshaw neighborhood, many of the students come from lower income, working families.
“They depend a lot on us,” he said.
Senior Lead Officer Pierre Olega of the Southwest LAPD division also knows how important murals can be to the public.
“They want them to represent the community,” he said, “The main focus is one, to beautify the community and two, to create something the community can relate to so they don’t vandalize it.”
Vandalism is still a problem, but a problem Schmerelson and Baltazar planned for. They set aside a large amount of the budget for Tradewinds Graffiti Guard, a coating that allows for graffiti to be removed without repainting.
“You still have kids who are outside of the school, who don’t have that connection to the school who don’t know to respect the murals,” said Schmerelson.
Baltazar was passionate about educating the children about the murals and their meaning so vandalism would not become a huge issue, and for the most part it was a success.
“Anything that the community embraces and takes as their own, they won’t vandalize,” said Officer Olega.
Schmerelson, passionate about the appearance and morale of the school, often does the work himself.
“Oh yeah he’ll be out there cleaning it,” said Sandra Belton, a Cochran Middle School faculty member.
“To me it’s a personal insult,” Schmerelson, “so when you see things like that when you come into work in the morning and see that graffiti it kind of turns your stomach.”