A few years ago, Jerry Jackson's math students at Olney's Grover Washington Jr. Middle School had problems understanding the coordinate grid. X-axis, Y-axis, it didn't matter. They couldn't get their heads around plot points floating in space.
Then artist Ben Volta joined Jackson in the classroom with city maps - another sort of grid. Soon, the students were charged with finding and marking meaningful places on their maps, like Grandma's house, the airport, the Liberty Bell, the school. Those places were then linked with lines, creating gorgeous geometrics they called "Polygon Blooms" that were suitable for framing.
"It was using math in a meaningful way, the way it's meant to be used," Jackson said.
Last year, Volta worked with seventh graders at Morton McMichael Public School in Mantua. They were having trouble using rulers correctly, many of them consistently measuring from the start of the wooden tool and not from the line marking the beginning of the first inch. Volta asked the class to start drawing trees with long branches. They had to measure along the way, ensuring each thinned as it grew. Those trees and other student-made art works were translated into a 12,000-square-foot mural that now brightens McMichael's entrance and exterior walls.
"They worked out a formula with the trees the same way they have to work out a formula in math. There's an analog relationship between the two. The art project assesses the same brain functions," said Volta, 35. "It's not always obvious, but it becomes evident in the work."
In an ideal world where every school had all the funding it needed, integrating art and academics would be a no-brainer. A 2002 report by the Arts Education Partnership broke new ground when it said exposure to the arts - including drama and music - can motivate students, particularly those who need remedial help.
Jackson of Grover Washington monitored the grades and standardized test scores of his two classes, one that worked with Volta and one that did not. The difference was startling, he said.
"I can say with certainty that the ones who worked with him learned more math and were better able to use it," he said.
Artist and educator Tim Rollins, whose successful program combining art and academics has touched generations of New York City students, has long served as a mentor for Volta.
"Benjamin Volta's art creates citizens," Rollins said. "What he's doing, and I don't use this word a lot, is amazing. So much public art is about someone who wanted to create something and sticking it in an appropriate space. Ben doesn't do that. He engages the entire community in the conception and production of the work, creating something that's deep and enduring."
Volta knows firsthand how art can permanently change the course of someone's life.
Back in the mid-'90s, he was about to flunk out of Abington High School. He admits he was a terrible student, more concerned with skateboarding and daydreaming. He consistently earned his highest grades, A's and B's, in art class. That gave him an idea: Maybe he could do extra-credit projects linking art to each of his failing subjects. He made his first appeal to his English teacher.
"I read Kafka's Metamorphosis. It was the first time I remember reading and caring about a book," Volta said. "The art explored the whole man/bug thing, a collage with pencil. Then I went to my other teachers and made the same offer."
He passed. After a semester at Montgomery County Community College, he decided to study full-time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. A few years later, he moved on to the University of Pennsylvania. He eventually graduated magna cum laude from Penn with a bachelor's degree in fine arts. Not bad for a kid with a 1.8 grade-point average coming out of high school.
"I stumbled into learning," he said.
A summer job when he was 18 showed Volta that working with children was his path. That deal was sealed when he joined Rollins on a number of projects.
"I don't know if we need any more great artists, but we do need great educators," Rollins said. "Benjamin is an educator, a great educator."
Volta has been working with students in the Philadelphia school system for more than a decade now - first funded by the district, then the state, and now the city's Mural Arts Program. He's currently working with students at Russell Byers Charter School in Center City who are studying neurons. The final class project will be a neuron costume that can hold 25 kids.
Volta will also return to McMichael this year, working with eighth-grade math and science students. He's not quite sure what the class will create, but he has last year's successful model to follow:
In one of those first classes, he showed the seventh graders the 1977 film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames - an experience they still talk about. In nine minutes, the camera pulls back from close-ups of a couple enjoying a picnic in Chicago to show their place on the continent, in the world, and eventually the universe. It then comes back to the original picnickers and delves below a sleeping man's skin, showing the blood vessels and collagen and cells and atoms.
The theme of micro to macro emerged, which showed up in the murals they painted this summer: One starts with a map of the world, then zooms in to those meticulously measured branches, then moves into DNA. Another zooms out to show the Earth and the universe.
Student John Hassell said the project has him now considering a career in astronomy. He wants to discover an alternative race, but "nothing scary. A civilization like us, but more advanced. No more arguing. No more fighting. We're going to have to mingle together to make a better society," he said. There was a pause and he added, "And change the economy."
McMichael principal Brian Wallace said he has noticed a change in academic performances and in attitudes since the mural's completion. The students are now proud of their school.
"They think it's a better place because it looks better so they feel better and perform better," he said. "One of the most beautiful things that I ever saw was when the mural was dedicated and the students saw their names were on it. ... After dismissal, all of them just huddled around and stared at their names."