03/04/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
For years the inside of Brooklyn's Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts was a sea of gray, dreary enough to tempt even the best pupils into playing hooky. Then, in the fall of 2000, Ruth Lande Shuman and her squad of student painters stormed the building. Now the halls glow magenta and turquoise—and attendance rates have been rising ever since. That was precisely Shuman's brightening idea. "We're transforming prisonlike environments," she says, "into ones that are truly alive."
Shuman, 58, is founder and director of Publicolor, a Manhattan-based nonprofit group whose Paint Clubs have given makeovers to 32 of the New York City area's troubled public schools since 1994. An industrial designer and divorced mother of two sons, she was buoyed by studies showing that bright hues boost mood and performance. The vivid results: In most cases, officials report, grades are up while truancy, graffiti and violence are down. Says Maurice Brown, 17, who helped beautify University Neighborhood High School last year: "When we finished, kids were smiling. The colors make you feel like you have no worries."
It's not all just rollers and spatters: Club members get pep talks from professionals and job-training specialists. Francisco Guerrero was an indifferent Bronx eighth grader when coaxed to paint in 1996. "I thought it wasn't cool," he says. His grades and attitude improved; at 19, he's a freshman at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, aiming for law school. Shuman isn't surprised. "Color is energy," she says. "It's life. It's hope."