Posted Online: April 18, 2013, 6:01 pm

New Thurgood Marshall mural emphasizes tolerance

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By Stephen Elliott, selliott@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
Thurgood Marshall 10th-grader Moshe Stewart, teacher Janice Watts-Gbenyo and artist Jesse Adams stand with the mural they helped create inside the Rock Island school on Thursday, April 18, 2013. The three-panel mural depicts twenty noteworthy individuals who have have made a significant social impact in the past fifty years.
ROCK ISLAND -- In the quiet halls of Thurgood Marshall Learning Center, the walls come to life.

With roughly 120 students, the school in the Rock Island-Milan School District is a referral school, meaning students come here for a variety of reasons from discipline to special education.

Thurgood Marshall is a last chance for many students.But principal Phillip Ambrose likes challenges.

He wants to find ways to make these students care, make them learn, while teaching respect and tolerance, hopefully with some discipline sprinkled in. The problem isn't necessarily inside the school, which has security checks, metal detectors, cameras, and two-way radios to monitor the day.

The problems for students usually come outside the building, when they're away from school. To reach out to these students, Mr. Ambrose doesn't think of traditional education as the only means of teaching.

"You cannot think along the lines of orthodox," Mr. Ambrose said Thursday. "That's the challenge. We try to hook these kids in many ways."

One of those ways was a mural the students participated in this spring, a mural of 20 national and international figures who epitomize tolerance.

The project is called, "A Dream: 50 Years and Beyond."

Most of the faces on the wall would be familiar to many - Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Muhammad Ali, Roberto Clemente, Bill Cosby, Arthur Ashe.

"So much is predicated on tolerance," Mr. Ambrose said. "The theme is tolerance. They've all contributed in some way within their industries to the advancement of tolerance."

The main artist, Jesse Adams, a retired Rock Island High School arts teacher, has some of the students help with the background.

"One thing I wanted to do is splash the color," Mr. Adams said. "Bam, it excites you, right? The idea for splashing the color, it stops you right there. That helps out immensely. For the most part, some people will gravitate to this.

"They may end up doing this."

One of those students, Moshe Stewart, 16, is from Chicago, but lives in Rock Island. He helped Mr. Adams with the project.

"He's a very good student artistically," Mr. Adams said. "I noticed he had some very good skills. Prior to the (spring) break, he said he was willing to help. We started prepping the boards. First, I put on the frame, and then painted the sections out in terms of color."

"I learned a lot," Mr. Stewart said. "I did the background on the baseball player (Clemente), and I helped build the frames to the backboard."

Mr. Adams is not new to Thurgood Marshall. Last year, he worked on the mural that honors the Tuskegee Airmen. That project is a stairway above the most recent mural.

But, simply seeing bright colors featuring faces and figures that transform a wall isn't the only part of the project. Teacher Janice Watts-Gbenyo said students study one biography a week.

"They recognize these faces now that we've studied each of their biographies," Ms. Watts-Gbenyo said. "It's a theme of being respectful and responsible and civil and how it connects to being successful."

Mr. Adams said by the time Mr. Stewart is a senior, "there's a lot more he can actually be involved in. There's some contests. There's some summer work he can do if he's interested in art."

Asked if he would like to pursue art, Mr. Stewart said, "Yes, I would."

Not every student has a happy ending here. Many have hard upbringings related to a number of factors, but knowledge is a way to overcome some of those barriers, Mr. Adams said.

Graduation rates have increased here through the years, and people like Mr. Adams say they put the time in because, "It's in my heart. It's what I do."

He points to the upper right-hand corner of the mural, where a blank, black space remains.

"What does that say to you?" he asked. "There's still individuals out there who may still do something, maybe someone we haven't recognized yet. It's a continuous type of thing."