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Clairton City School District is located in one of the most polluted airsheds in the United States.
In recognition of this challenge faced by their community, students participating in the CASTLE (Clairton’s After School Teaching and Learning Experienceprogram have been studying air quality and how it pertains to their local history, environment and health through hands-on, experiential learning. The Consortium for Public Education administers the three-year program with the support of a number of area partners, including Sense of Place Learning under the leadership of educator Paula Purnell.

Throughout the academic year, the CASTLE students worked with Spring Hill-based artist Ian Green to create a mural that depicts their thoughts and beliefs about air pollution and how it impacts their lives, families and the Clairton community at large. The colorful–and powerful–mural was unveiled this past Wednesday during an end-of-year celebration for the program.


“The goal of the mural project was to create an impactful visual that students, teachers and community members could use to learn about and discuss issues surrounding the local air quality,” Purnell said. “I am so impressed with how Ian pulled ideas and images from the kids and melded them with his artwork to create a mural that is dense with meaning.”
Green asked the middle- and high-school students to brainstorm what the different colored bins of the Air Quality Index (AQI) meant to them in both pictures and words. He then transformed the student’s individual works into a single composition in the form of a mural that shows the progression from clean air to dirty air along the color spectrum of the AQI.
“I wanted the classes to generate as much content as possible for the mural and for the kids to see how their input can impact a bigger picture,” Green said.
The AQI is a color-coded air pollution health risk messaging tool used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Green indicates satisfactory air quality that poses little health risk, according to EPA. Yellow signals moderate health concern, and orange means unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children, the elderly and people with lung disease. Red announces unhealthy air for everyone, while purple AQI means the air quality is very poor and all outdoor activity should be avoided.
Accordingly, the green–or clean air–section of the mural depicts healthy children playing under blossoming trees in a flower-filled field. As air quality quickly deteriorates thanks to factories and traffic, the yellow, orange and red AQI parts of the mural show dead trees and young people armed with inhalers and struggling to breathe. “Everyone in this school knows how to draw an inhaler,” Green said. Viewers are warned by images of gravestones and a barren landscape to “stay home” in the purple AQI end of the spectrum.
Funding for the mural came in part from The Pittsburgh Foundation’s New Voices of Youth program, an online grant contest that challenged young people in the Pittsburgh area to develop ideas for projects to help improve air quality in our region in connection with area nonprofits.
And with support of the Breathe Project, Green also has created a coloring book titled “Trees Are Like Lungs: The Air Quality Index Illustrated” that contains loose sheets with line drawings from the mural that children can color and then piece together to recreate their own personal version of the artwork. “It’s a way to bring the issue to the attention of people who may not see the mural hanging in the school,” he said.
“I can easily imagine teachers using the drawings as writing prompts and early childhood teachers taking classes to explore ideas through visuals,” Purnell adds. “I hope it will be a resource for many years to come.”
The CASTLE students also have been working with Group Against Smog and Pollution to implement the EPA’s School Flag Program. Each morning, student volunteers at Clairton visit the website, check their local air quality and hoist a brightly colored flag up the school’s flagpole indicating the air quality for that day. With the help of Grow Pittsburgh, they created a vegetable garden on school grounds and learned bike skills through MGR Youth Empowerment.

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