The Grand Rapids Museum School is all about history, heritage, culture and providing ways to learn right in the heart of the city. So winning a $10 million XQ Super School Project contest is a huge step forward for immersing students in projects using surrounding resources, said Principal Christopher Hanks.
XQ Super School Project came to town this week to celebrate with the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education and City Commission leaders at the Van Andel Museum Center, 272 Pearl St. The school was one of 10 nationwide to receive grants under the $100 million contest initiated last year with backing from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs.
Chosen from some 700 entries, the Museum School was hailed by the Super School Project as one that “makes every day ‘a night at the museum.'” The project noted the museum’s 250,000 cultural and historical artifacts undergird a rigorous curriculum and a “project- and placed-based learning environment,” including an ambitious restoration planned for the Grand River.
For the 120 sixth- and seventh-graders who currently attend the Museum School, the grant means more innovation and opportunities at a school where they are already learning about the past, present and future in exciting ways.
“This is so fun, a school in a museum. It helps me focus on education and gives me a better idea of what I want for my future,” said seventh-grader Haylee Scalen, whose favorite subject is social studies and who wants to be a lawyer.
“There is a museum, a planetarium, exhibits. I was one of 60 kids picked from hundreds and I want to take advantage of the education in being here,” said sixth grader Collin Helak, whose favorite class is space design.
The Grand Rapids Public Schools theme school opened last fall on the top level of the museum with 60 sixth-graders. Enrollment will grow by one grade level — some 60 students — each year. It will expand by a grade each year and open a high school in 2018 at the former public museum at 54 Jefferson Ave. SE.
Turning Traditional School Model ‘On Its Head’
Hanks said the grant money will be spent entirely on the high school, renovating the building that housed the original museum from 1854 to 1994. It will be outfitted with state-of-the art technology, he said, allowing students to learn about and through virtual reality and production of digital content.
Museum School leaders are rethinking high school, Hanks said, with an approach that goes way beyond the current standards. Schools are traditionally built on a knowledge-consumption model, with absorbing information serving as the basic activity of schooling. “We want to turn that on its head so the basic activity is to use information to accomplish goals or to solve problems,” he said.
The concept is based on design-thinking, which focuses on working toward solutions in the classroom and community; and placed-based education, which immerses students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences. For example, students will be engaged in the Grand River restoration project, which includes re-imagining flood protection.
“When we designed the high school the most fundamental idea that our team had was to really blend the school into the community,” Hanks said.
Local resources allow students to engage in projects to improve the city and downtown and partnerships with local businesses and organizations. The school has ample resources to tap that are just minutes away, including institutions of higher education, the Grand Rapids Public Library and the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
“To me, that’s the key to what we are trying to do, put students directly in touch with people who have expertise from those organizations to impact the physical environment around them,” Hanks said.
‘A Beacon for the Community’
At the celebration on the museum’s lawn, XQ leader Russlynn Ali praised the work of school and city leaders.
“Every community has a museum but few display courage, diversity and innovation”,” she said. “This is a beacon for the community, something to look at with wonder and intrigue. We are excited and honored to partner with you. It’s a never-ending journey to strive for the betterment of the country’s children.”
Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal said the grant helps fulfill the mission of GRPS.
“We don’t do things small in Grand Rapids; we do things big,” she said. “We asked, ‘How do we rethink high school?’ and we came together the Grand Rapids way. We turned a mission into a reality.”
The school will receive $2 million for each of the next five years, with $8.5 million going to building renovations and $1.5 million to technology, officials said. The Museum School’s design and development are in close collaboration with partners including Grand Valley State University, Kendall College of Art & Design/Ferris State University, the city of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.