Costa Mesa resident Michael Howard and the sixth-graders of Rea Elementary School are turning their campus into a work of art, one wall at a time.
Since last week, the group began painting the outside wall at the Newport-Mesa district school. This is one of several walls that Howard has helped paint at Rea, and it is the 1,000th mural he has done for his nonprofit, Operation Clean Slate.
Howard first founded the organization in 1993 while he was teaching at a juvenile hall in Orange County.
"I was driving up the 405 one day to visit my family in L.A. and saw graffiti on the way," he said. "It just stood out to me. It was a cry for help."
Knowing that some of his students partook in marking street walls, he asked them what the purpose was behind it. They responded by saying they just wanted to make public art, Howard remembered.
"They wanted recognition and attention for something they created," he said. "Writing on a wall was something that made them feel important."
Since then, he began Operation Clean Slate and arranged projects at schools in Los Angeles and Orange County.
At each site, he encourages students to help him paint the murals. For some projects, as many as 50 students have pitched in to complete their school's artwork.
He is now devoted to working on the organization's murals full-time.
"I found that by having them do the murals, they have pride and ownership in what they create," Howard said. "And their peers help keep the murals nice by not tagging it or ruining it because they know how hard their friends worked to make it."
The paint, brushes and other supplies needed to put up the murals are acquired through either funds from the school, donations or sponsorship from corporations or foundations, Howard said.
Many of Operation Clean Slate's murals have themes, such as a graphic of a steering wheel with a "Don't Text & Drive" message at Phoenix High School in Venice Beach and colorful images of vegetables to promote healthy eating at Kornblum Elementary School in Hawthorne.
Some of the organization's previous murals at Rea have been up on the school's walls for 15 years.
Next to the latest mural are two walls Howard remembers painting. One shows the words "Believe, Achieve, Succeed," with a shark, Rea's mascot, wearing a graduation cap. Another wall says "Knowledge is power" across the top.
This month, Howard and the students will finish painting a light blue wall with the school's new logo and mascot design, a shark wearing sunglasses. The students will also paint the words "Capable, Talented & Intelligent" under the shark.
"That's our school motto, 'We are capable, talented and intelligent sharks and we are going to college,'" Rea Principal Kalim Rayburn said. "A mural like this really reflects our student mission, which is to have our kids succeed in college and life beyond school."
Before Operation Clean Slate began work on the current mural, the space only had those three words painted across the wall and over time the graphic began to fade, according to Rayburn.
Every Wednesday, the Rea students have outdoor morning assemblies where they say the pledge of allegiance and recite the school motto.