“Our community is unique, and if Dunbar closes, it would be a significant loss for all of us.”
Carla Alexander, co-director, Tillie’s Corner
Dunbar Elementary School is a historic institution of St. Louis’ Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood and is currently at risk of closure due to low enrollment. The school is within walking distance to Vashon High School and the William J. Harrison St. Louis Community College. According to Carla Alexander, they operate much like a single campus, providing students with opportunities to stay, learn, and invest in their home community.
Mrs. Alexander is a longtime Jeff-Vander-Lou resident and Dunbar volunteer. She is also co-director of Tillie’s Corner, a historic small business hub across the street from the school. “My husband and I have always been connected to Dunbar,” she shared. “We’ve appreciated Principal Virdure’s engagement with residents and commitment to everyone working together for the community. It’s important to support the children, and we’ve built a closer relationship as we get to know their teachers and families. We’ve all started to become a family.”
Mrs. Alexander is one of several partners working with ArchEngage, a student group that connects WashU students with faculty and community members to collaborate on pro bono design-build projects in the St. Louis area. Brooke Bulmash, a junior in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and co-president of ArchEngage, learned about the school’s potential closure while attending Jeff-Vander-Lou Whole New Area II Neighborhood Development Association meetings. Brooke and co-president Ethan Paik, AB ’19, came up with the idea for a community mural project that aims to celebrate the rich history of the neighborhood while also building enthusiasm for attending the school.
Brooke received support for the project through the Gephardt Institute’s Civic Engagement Fund in spring 2019. Since March, ArchEngage volunteers have collaborated with Mrs. Alexander and husband Miguel Alexander; artist, farmer, and educator Mitch Pearson; and Dunbar students to conceptualize, design, and paint a mural. The mural features local landmarks like Tillie’s Corner and a quote by the school’s namesake, Paul Laurence Dunbar, an influential African-American poet. The group met regularly to get the project off the ground, and dozens of WashU and Dunbar students have joined the effort.
Once complete, the mural will be displayed in a classroom on the main level of the school. The project also includes the creation of an outdoor sign and t-shirts showcasing the mural design. Each component will be used to raise awareness of the school’s significance within the neighborhood and the threat of closure for current and future students. Together, Brooke summed, “The mural, sign, and t-shirts form an important visual language that can be leveraged by the broader community campaign for keeping the school open, raising enrollment, and revitalizing school pride.” Mrs. Alexander agreed, adding that they will serve as vehicles for future fundraising.
Looking ahead, ArchEngage participants aim to foster ongoing collaboration with community members as they build relationships and participate in local events and meetings. Borler Wu, a sophomore in the Sam Fox School, is the current co-president of ArchEngage and coordinates regular visits to the school. “We are also going to neighborhood association meetings once a month,” he shared, “and we’re hoping to collaborate on after-school programming for Dunbar students next year.” Mrs. Alexander added that, “We’ve been discussing the idea of a garden collective for the children, and this could be a way for ArchEngage to stay involved.”
When asked how the mural project has impacted their perception of St. Louis, Jared Katzelnick, a sophomore in the Olin Business School, shared that, “Going out and interacting with the community helps us overcome stereotypes and gain more holistic views of neighborhoods. Dunbar is at the heart of the Jeff-Vander-Lou experience.”
Carla echoed Jared’s sentiments. “I enjoy seeing our students interact with the WashU students and knowing we are all working toward a common goal with this design. My wish is for the community to come together and stay together as we bring attention to Dunbar, its history, its successes, and its challenges.”