For many people, the mention of arts in education might evoke a memory of a 45-minute class with a split focus between personal expression and an exercise in the practice of a technical medium. While that experience resonates for certain students, some would not consider it to be a transformative one.

For Rivers of Steel, not only does arts in education look dramatically different for students, but its impact also stretches far beyond artistic proficiency — their practice engages youth with one another and with the community. In the process, it fosters collaboration and civic pride for the creators of a public art piece and for community members.

Students from Chartiers Valley Middle School visited the Carrie Blast Furnaces. Their program included a tour of the site, paired with graffiti  and metal arts workshops. (Photo courtesy of Rivers of Steel)

The surprising medium for this engagement? Graffiti murals.

Evolving out of Rivers of Steel’s interpretation of the postindustrial history of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, the nonprofit organization has developed a range of programs to engage youth in creative placemaking, both in and out of school.

Now, during National Arts in Education week, the organization celebrates successful collaborations with schools and communities throughout the greater Pittsburgh region.

Customized collaboration with area school districts

“The Graffiti Arts program has organically, and rather quickly, grown during the last few years,” said Rivers of Steel’s Director of Education Suzi Bloom. “What began as hands-on field trips to the Carrie Blast Furnaces expanded into single-day classroom workshops and multi-visit outreaches at the schools — or a combination thereof. Lately though, most schools are also customizing their residencies to include the creation of a graffiti mural somewhere on their campus.”

The benefit of customization is the ability to link with academic priorities and learning objectives. For each recent mural project, Rivers of Steel has collaborated with classroom teachers, administrators, students and even outside partners to bring colorful murals to school and community spaces.

For California Area Elementary School, administrators looked to transform their restroom spaces while engaging students in the project. While the teaching artists completed much of the final murals, the students had an opportunity to visit the Carrie Blast Furnaces and to participate in the classroom in hands-on graffiti writing experiences that gave context to the language, forms and underground culture of the medium as a creative art form.

Teaching artist Max Gonzales and students work on the “Once a Duke, Always a Duke” mural at Duquesne Area Middle School. (Photo courtesy of Shane Pilster for Rivers of Steel)

Inspired by the California Area project, Jamie Schmidt, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at Duquesne Middle School, reached out to Rivers of Steel to help bring to life a vision she had for a project with their seventh- and eighth-grade art students. An installation, created earlier this year that reads “Once a Duke, Always a Duke,” allowed students to make their mark in the colorful brickwork.

After receiving a Moonshot grant from Remake Learning, Duquesne expanded their partnership with Rivers of Steel to include additional workshops during spring and fall 2023.

Last year, Rivers of Steel was able to collaborate with Propel Braddock Hills Middle School on a mural project that promoted school spirit, also with funding support from Remake Learning. Art teacher Susan Sarabok’s students in grades six through eight worked with Rivers of Steel teaching artists who combined two established forms of style-writing traditions not often thought of together — modern graffiti and traditional Turkish calligraphy.

Other projects recently completed include a removable mural at Shaler Area High School, which was a collaboration with support from the LIGHT Education Initiative, and also a second-year residency with Bellevue Elementary in the Northgate School District that aimed to integrate arts education across the curriculum. 

“Our students and families were blown away by the transformation of the space,” said Bellevue Principal Michael Amick. “Our kindergarten wing looks so much more vibrant now. Students were actually squealing when they went down the stairs and saw all the changes.”

Innovative learning benefits students and the community

Youth with the Rankin Christian Center pose in front of a mural they created with Rivers of Steel during the summer of 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Rankin Christian Center)

“Having a collaborative project helps develop a range of life skills for students,” said Chris McGinnis, Rivers of Steel’s director of arts. “From visual literacy and communication skills to the ability to manage a project from conception to execution, youth gain valuable experience that prepares them for leadership roles, higher education and today’s workforce.”

These collaborations are not limited to the classroom. Over the last two summers, Rivers of Steel Arts has been working with youth through community-based programs at the Rankin Christian Center and with the Art in the Garden program in East Liberty. 

“Community murals have the unique ability of bringing folks together from various age groups and experiences, to take part in something positive for their neighborhood or main street,” McGinnis continued. “Even small interventions can have a lasting impact if the project brings the right people together. Our mural projects often connect youngsters with older residents and highlight local creatives previously unknown to the community, who then end up working together on future projects.”

Classroom educators and administrators who are interested in graffiti-based residencies or mural projects, can contact to learn more. Community contacts looking to collaborate can reach out to

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