There's something special about the hallways and stairwells in Georgetown Middle School this winter.

Throughout the school, the interior has been decorated with new hand-painted murals of book spines ─ hundreds of them ─ created by students, the school's principal and all of its faculty members.

What's significant about the book spines is each one bears a unique and positive message that promotes acts of kindness. The murals were born from a new partnership Georgetown Middle School formed with the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation in late November, and the initiative is intended to help curve bullying in schools. Georgetown Middle was the first school to begin the project, and Selbyville Middle School will follow next.

The murals ─ which grace nearly 20 canvasses ─ were officially unveiled on Dec. 20.

Selbyville's mural project is slated to get underway in early 2014, said Doug Phillips, marketing and communications director for the Freeman Foundation.

How it started

The genesis of the mural project began this winter after Freeman Foundation Executive Director Patti Grimes pitched the idea to Georgetown Middle School Principal Mike Williams, who gladly obliged.

Prior to partnering with the Freeman Foundation, the school started Rachel's Club in the fall, a program that challenges students to demonstrate acts of kindness. Club members carry out such acts by giving tours of the school to new students or by doing other things like inviting a peer who's sitting alone to join them during lunch, said guidance counselor Erin Crooks.

Rachel's Club ─ inspired by the national and student-empowering program called Rachel's Challenge ─ fits into Georgetown Middle's new focus of this school year, which is to be more proactive against bullying.

"Our goal was to combat bullying," Williams said. "We put a different spin on it earlier in the year with 'creating acts of kindness,' with the understanding if you're being kind to everyone, and doing kind acts, then you're going to be doing those acts opposite of somebody who's bullying or being mean. We wanted to focus on the action we wanted to see. We didn't want to be reactive."

GMS' goal to squash bullying gained more momentum when Williams was introduced to the mural project this winter.

"When the Freeman Foundation just happened to contact us about this mural project, they really wanted to focus on the middle schools and focus on bullying," Williams said. "It sort of fit with us really good. They wanted us to make it our own. They had an idea and they were going to fund it. They were going to bring in an artist. They were going to take care of all the logistical things. It was up to us to [decide] how we want to create this legacy mural in our building."

Freeman loves the kids

The Freeman Foundation ─ which offers the Freeman Stage at Bayside, an outdoor performing arts venue based in Selbyville ─ has a history of using the arts to educate and uplift students in Sussex County.

Most recently it bused students from Georgetown Elementary School to see the Washington National Opera perform at Delaware Technical Community College's Owens Campus earlier this month, Phillips said.

"As one of the few arts organizations in the area, we wanted to find a way to impact and inspire Sussex County students in an immediate way, while providing visual stimulation for future students in the years to come," Grimes said. "Studies have shown that students with an active participation in the arts have higher GPAs and standardized test scores, lower drop-out rates and even improve attitudes about community service."

'It was a good opportunity'

Before Thanksgiving break, painter John Donato and Williams held a school pep rally to inform the students about the mural project.

The teachers received templates of Donato's plan for the mural project, and then they spent two days with the students, helping them brainstorm ideas for how they'd paint their own book spines.

"At first, they were a little apprehensive about doing it because a lot of them said they're not good artists," seventh-grade special education math teacher Hilary Davey said of her students. "But once they got involved in it, they kind of got more excited about it as they started to see their friends do theirs."

Students painted their book spines from Dec. 2 through Dec. 6, and each student was allotted about 45 minutes to complete their piece. Every student in the school participated, as did each faculty member. On Dec. 4, a parent night was held and some moms and dads contributed.

Seventh-grader Elena Agustin Vicente says she likes the mural project because it's given her and many of her schoolmates the chance to permanently express feelings that they already share for one another.

"I think it was a good opportunity," Augustin Vincente said of the mural project, "because most of the kids here are very kind, and they believe in friendship."

The 13-year-old Augustin Vincente, of Georgetown, created a book spine with a painting of a long chain to symbolize how kindness produces a chain reaction. The painting also includes the words "beautiful, kind, sweet, loving.

Fellow seventh-grader Elizabeth Holz painted a book spine with a series of smiley faces, with the main smiley placed at the center of the painting to represent how kindness can be contagious.

"There's one person in the middle who's like happy and kind, and nice to other people," said Holz, 13, of Georgetown. "Those people that get the kindness from that one person spread it around to everybody, and it's kind of like: what goes around comes around."