When students leave their building for good at the end of this school year, they'll be forced to leave behind part of the school's soul on the walls. Thanks to the efforts of a tenacious group of parents, teachers, and staff, though, some of that soul will be able to come with them.
The most striking example hides from visitors in plain sight, above their heads as they enter the school.
"This mural is lovingly dedicated to all the brave souls who lost their lives in the pursuit of human rights, justice, and peace. May 8, 1998," reads a small block of text next to the front door.
Its red letters each no more than an inch high, it's easy to breeze by on your way to the rest of the school. But stop for a moment and you see, spiraling up the three-story staircase, an immense, student-made mural detailing the 26 points of the 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights. The students even added their own subtle flourishes that speak to their opinions and experiences—"Jim Crow Laws?" on the "Freedom from Slavery" section, and small male and female symbols joined together in same-sex pairs on the "right to marriage" section.
"That staircase inspires me every time I walk up and down it," said Alison Dunkelberger, a Ramsey parent. "Kids were talking about same-sex marriage in 1998. That's wild."
Ever since former art teacher Denny Sponsler brought the mural tradition to Ramsey in the late 1990s, the art form has permeated life at the school, said Fine Arts Coordinator Eryn Warne. A social studies class created that massive human rights mural, for example; science and special education teachers have worked tile murals into their curricula.
“Students’ self-identity fills these murals,” said Lisa McLean, a former Ramsey parent and the school’s current Family Liaison. “We’ve had lots of meaningful conversations about that with students.”
"The mural tradition creates a sense of pride, a sense of belonging among our kids," Warne added.
It shows in the murals, too. Surprisingly for a building full of rambunctious youngsters aching to leave their mark, there is hardly any evidence of vandalism repair or graffiti on the stirring images of breaking chains and the detailed depictions of Aztec history.
“Kids really own it,” said . “They have a sense that it’s got meaning above and beyond themselves.”
When another staircase mural depicting Native American "fancy dancers" was painted over by district maintenance workers in preparation for the school's move across town to a new building near South High School, parents, teachers, and staff sprang into action to save the murals that were left.
"There is so much history in that building that we're not able to take with us," Dunkelberger said. "I knew someone (officemate Bryan King) who could preserve the murals better than my iPhone could."
King, a hobbyist photographer, grabbed his digital camera and set to work, documenting all the murals and tile installations he could before district crews finished preparing Ramsey to host serving graduates of Burroughs and Lyndale elementary schools.
So far, the school community hasn’t decided what to do with King’s photos, but Warne said they plan to continue with their mural tradition, starting with their new building’s first floor, possibly including a math mural by Weisser’s class.