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Museum high school taking shape in historic building

Ninth-graders enter this fall

Don’t look now, but the old Grand Rapids Public Museum building is turning into a high school.

Dozens of workers are busily transforming the former museum at 54 Jefferson Ave. SE into a new high school. Come this fall, the ninth grade of Grand Rapids Public Museum School will begin classes there, expanding the program now housing 180 sixth- through eighth-graders at the Van Andel Museum Center overlooking the Grand River.

Construction is due to be completed by Aug. 1 on the high school, which will turn the historic building on Jefferson into a state-of-the-art school for students learning from their surroundings and applying knowledge to solutions.

Oscar Velasco installs trim on a window facing Jefferson Avenue SE

“What’s really exciting to me is I feel like that space gives us an opportunity to engage our students kind of head, hand and heart,” said Museum School Principal Christopher Hanks. “They can be doing work that is meaningful to them, impacts the community and is a learning experience as well.”

The 36,600-square-foot building is designed to educate 360 students, 90 each in grades 9-12. Supervised by general contractor Rockford Construction, workers are preserving elements of the historically protected building, such as original flooring and stairways, while building modern classrooms, high-tech labs and cozy seating nooks.

While the building’s exterior will look mostly the same, the interior will be full of innovations that could serve as a model for other school districts, officials say.

“It was an open canvas for how we can transform this (space) into a high school,” said John Helmholdt, spokesman for Grand Rapids Public Schools, as he toured a visitor through the building recently.

Ray Palmer applies a trim piece to a column on the first floor

City and Schools Come Together

The $10 million renovation is being partially funded by a $10 million grant from the XQ Super School Project, which in 2016 chose GRPS as one of 10 districts nationwide for support of innovative schools. Another $2 million from a taxpayer-approved bond and a capital campaign are also supporting the project and other Museum School improvements.

The museum high school developed from a cooperative effort between the City of Grand Rapids and GRPS, which founded the public museum in 1854 and once housed it in a mansion on the Jefferson site. The Depression-era museum building was deeded to the city in 1937 on one condition – that it be used for museum purposes, and that it revert back to the school district if it ever stopped being used for that purpose.

Paul Krebill of D & D Building nails trim around a display case on the first floor

That happened when the new museum was opened in 1994, so the vacated building became a natural high school site for the Museum School. In 2015, the city sold the building back to the schools for $1, in exchange for school property and the same sum. A joint ceremony of the GRPS Board of Education and City Commission formally turned over the old museum, where generations of school children had gawked up at a whale skeleton and peered wide-eyed at dioramas of woodland scenes.

The GRPS purchase included a parking lot and a “pocket park” at the corner of Jefferson and State Street SE. The Board of Education last week approved enhancements to that corner including trees, seating areas and landscape beds. The board is seeking to split the cost of improvements with the Downtown Development Authority.

Chris Almanza puts finishing touches on drywall in the main hall

Beyond the Classroom

Inside the building, workers have been hammering display cases, putting up drywall and building skylights that will bathe second-story classrooms with natural light. When complete, the spacious main gallery will feature student-designed exhibits. One large inner room will become a lab where students can study canoes and other artifacts from the museum’s adjacent collection building, which students will help catalog and digitize while also processing new artifacts.

Another lab will be a kind of mega-makerspace where students can work on 3-D printers as well as lathes and other traditional tools. Indeed, most of the work students do will be outside of traditional classrooms, Hanks said.

“The high school I expect to be really transformative, in that it embodies the mindset and themes of the school in terms of active learning, a focus on design and innovation, and direct access for our students to the museum collections,” he said. “We’re taking this opportunity to continue building our partnership with the museum. That’s really exciting.”

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History of the Grand Rapids Public Museum

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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