06/13/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Making Education Beautiful

I've been walking into public elementary schools for four years now to mentor students in screenwriting. Doing this requires running an urban gauntlet of sorts: passing through a chain link fence, signing in a log book and getting a yellow visitor sticker, before making my way into a classroom.

This journey, through locked gates and into aging buildings with bad ventilation and the exact same architecture everywhere I go got me thinking about another side of education -- one that seems to have been overlooked. Focusing on test scores, academics, quality teaching and administrative oversight are all very important, don't get me wrong, but there is something else equally as impactful in the way we educate our children.


Liberal arts graduate that I am (which means I'm tempted to bandy the word around more often than is necessary), I thought I'd re-check the definition of aesthetics before writing this piece. Webster's Dictionary defines it as a philosophy dealing with "the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty." Perfect. This is a subject that arts education works to tackle daily: giving students a voice, allowing them to express that which they find beautiful or horrid in the world and giving them the chance to create alternate, and better, narratives for themselves and their communities.

But look at what they walk into every day of the school year: chain link, bicycle-locked fences and drab buildings with no air conditioning. What is a school? Moreover, what do we want a school to be? A place of beauty and freedom for learning and expression, or a place where one is confined and taught? Architecture sends as clear a message to students as the teacher standing in the classroom. And it is something public school systems ought to consider as they begin to replace the aging schools in their districts.

Higher institutions of learning have always placed a value on beauty, partly because they need to attract students. Travel along Jefferson Blvd. on the way to Animo Jackie Robinson High School in South Los Angeles (one of the schools where Young Storytellers Foundation runs its program) and the path of urban blight is conspicuously disrupted by the bucolic USC campus. Here, grass is suddenly very green, buildings are freshly painted and the streets are clear of litter. There are no gang tags. What message are we sending the students of South Los Angeles whose busses pass this University daily? Don't they, too, deserve beauty in and around their education?

Stick a kid in a windowless classroom and think about the message you are sending them. Not only does a lack of light and fresh air exhaust a student, but it dulls their sense of beauty. What do inmates in prisons most yearn for? A glimpse of sunlight and blue sky. We send our students through locked gates, into windowless rooms and tell them to learn. Is it that much of a stretch that they might see school as an eight-hour-a-day prison?

Some charter schools in Los Angeles have already begun taking this lesson to heart. Take a look at the Sonoma Country Day School, keeping in mind that it's private, designed and built fairly recently, and resides in a county in California without the myriad challenges facing an inner-city public school. Look at it instead as an ideal. The school itself looks like a museum. Its spaces are designed for specific purposes. It isn't only science labs that need special equipment; art rooms and math rooms alike call out for their own design.

This is what we must aim for. Education needs all the beauty it can muster. It needs to be sexy and relevant and, yes, beautiful.

What stands in the way of change? Well, money of course. However, in my time spent helping steer the nonprofit organization Young Storytellers Foundation, I've come to realize that people cry money as the wolf far more often than the wolf is ever really present. Yes, it would be hard work to make our schools beautiful, and it's a long-term goal, but think of how it might change our students. If we're pouring money into high-speed rail in California as a jobs initiative, might we want to stimulate both our economy and our educational system at once by putting some money into building better schools? Teach a student about respect, they might learn it. Give them a space worthy of respect and they will know it and practice it, every day.