New Pekin, Ind. (WDRB) – The East Washington School Corporation is trying to make a big impact for middle schoolers with a tight budget.

Even though East Washington has fewer students and a smaller budget than many larger Indiana school districts, the superintendent and school principals are not willing to fall behind. They want to make sure the district is competitive and meets the needs and goals of every student.

Amber King is going into her sixth year as the principal of East Washington Middle School, which has around 500 students enrolled. Each year, she has scraped together volunteers and grants in order to make school improvements. If kids feel safe and happy to be at school, then better test scores and a love for learning with come with that, she said.

“Our job is so important,” King said. “Lots of times, we spend more hours of the day with these kids than their parents are even able to because of work and schedules. I want this school to be a place where kids want to come.”

With less than two weeks before school starts, teams of volunteers are finishing up four different projects at the middle school.

“I cannot wait for them to see the new space and see the reactions on their faces,” King said.

Two classroom aides came up with the plans to repaint both the boys’ and the girls’ bathrooms. Step into the boys’ bathroom, and you’ll think you’re caught in the middle of a Mario Kart game. Characters are stenciled on the bright walls, and the stall doors are painted to look like Nintendo Game Boy controllers.

The girls’ bathroom feels more like an underwater kingdom. Inspirational quotes and color fish scales are painted on the stall doors, while bubbles and sea creatures cover the walls. Volunteers also painstakingly adorned the mirrors with starfish and sea foam colored stones.

The third project was the library, which was transformed into a castle. Each beige cinder block was hand-painted to look like a stone. A teacher designed and built two custom reading nooks to look like castle towers. And brand new couches, fit for middle school kings and queens, pull the whole thing together.

“We received a flexible seating grant that allowed us to take care of a lot of seating option that we have now,” King said.

The final summer project was the courtyard right outside the library doors.

“This courtyard we have not been able to use since it’s been here," King said. "So this is going to be our first year to have an outdoor space where kids can come.”

The long space surrounded by classroom windows was uninspiring with all its brick and cement. But King came up with a plan to build a stage in the center and make it into an outdoor classroom and event space. The stage has a platform in the middle and built-in seating for 30 students.

To liven up the space, King put out the request on Facebook for someone to paint a mural or two. That’s how Kyle McIntosh got involved.

“I've seen the project itself, and I was just like, man, that looks like fun!” he said.

McIntosh owns a tattoo shop and is a well-known graffiti artist. He has been commissioned to create graffiti murals all across the nation and is donating his talents to make ten unique murals in the courtyard.

“They’re all different,” McIntosh said. “Different designs, different colors. To be honest with you, it’s all in my head. So I just take it one wall at a time.”

Armed with blue and white spray paint cans, he started the first mural Monday morning. There will be ten in total, one for each house. The 500 middle schoolers are divided into ten different houses to learn, grow and compete with throughout the year, kind of like in Harry Potter.

For McIntosh, the graffiti project is more than a job. It’s about giving back and passing on life lessons.

“A lot of people associate graffiti with bad and negative things, and that’s not the case," he said. Graffiti is a beautiful art.”

McIntosh remembers getting in trouble at school for doodling and drawing instead of paying attention in class when he was in elementary school. That eventually turned into exploring with graffiti and getting in trouble with the law.

“Being a young kid, I was starting out doing this and getting in trouble for it because I wasn’t doing it quite legally at the time,” he said.

But when a group commissioned his first mural at the age of 18, he said everything changed from there. And he hopes to pass that on to the East Washington Middle School kids.

“To turn that into something positive, to show them that no matter what their skills are, no matter what their dreams are ... they can turn that into something great,” McIntosh said.

The school’s principal said small decorative changes have made a difference over time. They’re seeing better test scores and fewer disciplinary issues.

“I’m proud of our education,” King said. “I’m proud of our test scores, our rigor and what we’re doing educationally.”

And she hopes this round of summer upgrades will go deeper than the paint.

“If we can get a little bit of excitement out of those middle schoolers to get them here each day, it just impacts every other thing that we’re trying to accomplish with them,” King said.

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