Museum School fulfills purpose of original Grand Rapids Public Museum building

Dear to the hearts of area residents old enough to have spent time there, the former Grand Rapids Public Museum building at 54 Jefferson Ave. SE is awakening from a long sleep. Next fall, ninth-grade students from the Grand Rapids Public Museum School will claim it as their high school.
Dear to the hearts of area residents old enough to have spent time there, the former Grand Rapids Public Museum building at 54 Jefferson Ave. SE is awakening from a long sleep. Next fall, ninth-grade students from the Grand Rapids Public Museum School will claim it as their high school.

Thanks to a partnership that includes Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS), Grand Rapids Public Museum, Grand Valley State University (GVSU), Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD), City of Grand Rapids, and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), the Museum School opened as a middle school at the Grand Rapids Public Museum in 2015. The students who attended there as sixth graders in 2015 will be high school freshman in the fall of 2018, the first class of students attending the new Museum School High School at 54 Jefferson St. SE. While middle school students will continue to attend classes at the GR Public Museum at 272 Pearl St. NW, the former site of the museum will expand the school’s offerings to ninth through 12th grade.

A look at the institution’s history reveals that the high school will not be repurposing the building, but rather, living out its purpose in a new century. Founded in 1854, the Grand Rapids Lyceum of Natural History soon after merged with the Grand Rapids Scientific Club — a group of Grand Rapid Central High School students — to form the Kent Scientific Institute. The Institute was administered by the Grand Rapids Board of Education. Its artifact collections were displayed at Central High School. In 1903, the Board of Education purchased a home on the corner of Jefferson and Washington streets to house the collections for nearly a century.

Built during the Great Depression with WPA funds from the Federal Government, the 54 Jefferson building was unlike museums of the era, which mimicked lofty Greek temples with grand stairways and ornate columns. The Grand Rapids Public Museum met visitors at street level, symbolizing accessibility and free dissemination of knowledge to all. Its director at the time, Frank DuMond, described it as “accessible as a dime store and friendly as your next door neighbor.”

“There has been this long, strong connection to educational institutions at the museum’s core,” says Dale Robertson, CEO, Grand Rapids Public Museum. “We had to look back to inform ourselves where to go. We saw a very rich tradition in education. Looking to move forward, we asked, ‘Could there be a school here?’”

The 54 Jefferson Building’s approachable design aligns well with its architectural transition into the Museum School high school. “This year’s eighth-graders will be walking through those doors in September of next year,” Robertson says. “54 Jefferson will be ready for use.”

Architect Ted Lott, AIA, principal of Lott3Metz and architect for the 54 Jefferson renovation notes that the building’s unique design features lend it to the new use, as a school. “The building’s original architect, Roger Allen, made a very specific design move that says things: Egalitarianism, access, democracy, everybody’s welcome,” he says. “This is pertinent when we think of accessibility issues—it was visionary.”

Lott was happy to discover that the building had remained in excellent condition. “We’re not going to have to do any major surgery to the exterior,” he says. “It will be preserved like it has been remembered. This project makes a great use of a building that has sat underused for too long.”

The interior, which he describes as a big concrete box, was originally designed to be changed out as new exhibitions came along. “We will retain the character of the great hall, the arched ceiling, and relationship to the aisle on the second floor. It will feel very similar and filled with activity.”

Robertson notes that as the oldest museum in Michigan, Grand Rapids Public Museum has the second largest collection of artifacts, with ninety percent of them donated by people of West Michigan. “There is an implied promise that these need to be used for a noble purpose, education and inspiration,” he says.

In alignment with that purpose, Museum School students will have access to artifacts next door in the museum’s archives–and so will community members. “Seventy-five percent of the artifacts will be used in some way, shape, or form. Currently, only 30 percent are in use,” Robertson says. “This honors that purpose with which people gave. They gave to gave it benefit the community.”

Museum School students will also actively engage in cataloging new artifacts that come into the collections as part of their curriculum.

An XQ Institute Super School

The Museum School was one of ten schools nationwide to win a $10 million grant from the XQ Institute "Super School Project," funded by the Emerson Collective and led by Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Nearly 700 schools across the nation applied for the grants.

No doubt, the school’s partnership with a public museum, a college, a university, the city, and an organization dedicated to city building strengthened the grant application. “The heart of the museum school is community collaboration, partnership between GVSU, Kendall, the Museum, DGRI and Grand Rapids,” says Robertson. “As public education looks to the future, like GRPS is doing with its transformation plan, it will become more prominent in education to partner with institutions in the community.”

Approximately $4.5 million of the grant dollars are funding construction. Remaining dollars are funding development of the Museum School’s high school curriculum, which not only centers on the Museum’s 250,000 artifacts but also uses the surrounding community as its classroom. The curriculum will also involve students in the Grand River revitalization project. They will work alongside scientists broaching the ecologically important task of restoring the river’s lost mussel population.

“We are doing a lot of things with that money, which is really exciting,” says Dr. Christopher Hanks, Museum School principal.

“We hired teachers and staff before school opens to make sure our curriculum is innovative and custom to our surrounding. We’re designing a curriculum specific to our location. And, we are devoting a significant portion to technology in terms of design tech hardware.”

For example, a high-tech computer platform will present holistic, real-time information on student progress to teachers, parents, and students via an easy-to-access dashboard. Going light-years beyond the traditional report card—course name and letter grade —the platform synthesizes information from multiple sources to provide assessments and enable students to build their own digital portfolios.

“This learning management system maintains a growth and competency model of learning that our students will be able to engage with dynamically,” Hanks says. “Rather than a simple accumulation of content, it reports on creative and critical skills, measuring that growth over time.”

Curriculum buzz-words build brain power: Design thinking. Place-based education.

Kevin Hollohan, assistant professor, Grand Valley State University Educational Foundations department, began working on the Museum School’s middle school curriculum three years before it opened in 2015. He believes in place-based education because it connects students to their communities and the natural environment, socially and culturally as well as academically.

“Research shows place-based education is effective for teaching academic concepts. I would argue it’s more effective. There’s a relevancy. Students are not simply learning abstract concepts but figuring out how they operate and apply to things. There’s more retention,” he says. “It also lends itself to teaching and learning in an interdisciplinary way. When kids can see connections between subjects, understanding takes place on a deeper level.”

Because teachers have the freedom to take kids outside the classroom and into the community (within a two-mile radius from the school), the community becomes the classroom. Gym class can be ice skating at Rosa Parks Circle. Instead of a small school library, students can use the entire Grand Rapids Public Library. They can go into government buildings to experience civics lessons and do art and design projects at KCAD.

“In many ways, these approaches respond to the changing nature of work environments and the world in general,” Hollohan says. “Students learn how to collaborate, problem-solve, and bring together different disciplines to solve wicked problems, those Issues that we face without clear-cut solutions.”

Hollohan is especially pleased that enrollment is noncompetitive. Any student from within the district, and some from outlying areas, can apply via lottery. All have equal opportunity to attend, regardless of test scores or previous issues.

“A lot of schools with unique programs limit enrollment to a particular type of kids,” he says. “We like to think that our student population represents the Grand Rapids population with regards to special needs, disabilities, and socio-economic background.”

“That’s one of our core goals, to be engaging and challenging regardless of backgrounds, ability levels, and interests,” adds principal Hanks. “Within this school, we balance creating experiential, hands-on learning out in the community with an academic curriculum that focuses on individual, targeted needs and skill levels.”

Like all public schools in Michigan, students are required to meet specific standards, take standardized tests, and achieve specific academic growth over time. The Museum School helps its students reach those goals with targeted tutoring and after-school programming. “In the after-school program, we bring in community members to teach courses on all different subjects you wouldn’t expect, for example, underwater robotics, fishing, bicycle repair, and sewing,” Hanks says. “We even have a museum volunteer who teaches astronomy in the planetarium.”

The other buzz-word shaping the Museum School curriculum—design-thinking—encourages students to be curious, creative, and collaborative. By definition, design-thinking uses “creative problem-solving process where information is collected and expressed visually or physically (prototyping) in order to create new strategies, develop ways and methods to solve problems, create opportunities, or strengthen weaknesses.” KCAD adds expertise in design-thinking to the curriculum team.

KCAD’s chair of art education, Cindy Todd, and chief sustainability officer, Gayle DeBruyn, serve on the Museum School’s six-member curriculum design team. “The design-thinking process allows students and teacher professionals to solve problems in a way that cultivates group creativity,” says Todd. “It’s pretty undisputed in the world of neuroscience as applied to education that design thinking builds a much smarter student. It’s loud, messy, and really effective.”

KCAD staff and students work on projects with Museum School students at the school as well as at KCAD facilities. For example, students can go to its Materials Lab to access the second largest collection of manmade and natural materials in the country.

“Michigan employs more designers than any other state in the country,” says Todd. “We need to feed that machine. We see the students learning very viable skills for their future careers here in Michigan.”

Today’s local learners, tomorrow’s local talent

Another Museum School partner, the City of Grand Rapids, recognizes that the Museum School is an investment in the City’s own future.

“This innovative program has been supported by many pioneers in our community. Many organizations in our community believe this is another way of adding to the pool of talent that we need to continue to be competitive, not only in our region, but nationwide,” says Tom Almonte, managing director-public services City of Grand Rapids executive office. “We cannot be a strong community in the future without a solid and strong public school system. We are creating a platform where everyone can be successful and make this their home.”

Almonte believes having such an innovative and creative teaching model in a public school is an essential piece for making Downtown Grand Rapids attractive to families. Architect Lott agrees.

“This is a very rich project when you think of the values it communicates: living where we work and making our city a better place,” he says. “Having an opportunity to work on a school that has so rich an idea about education, community, and how kids will interact is extremely rewarding—as is being able to take this to neighbors, the so many people who have memories of the space.”

Robertson concludes, “That building is a special building. It’s a WPA project. It needed to have the right public use. To have it be a school with a connection to the museum and the community is the right way to honor the legacy of that building and the spirit in which it was created.”

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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