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Original mastodons take next step

Grand Rapids — In the Design Lab at the Grand Rapids Public Museum High School, students can create personal and class projects using computer and printer technology, woodworking and multimedia equipment.

“This is where we set stuff on fire,” senior Esteban Clark-Braendle told a visitor about a box that fumigates chemicals.

While Esteban gave a tour, freshmen worked in groups to develop sessions for an end-of-semester conference, featuring topics such as urban planning, feminism, race relations and climate change. 

Across the common area-slash-lunch room, music and English classes share a space filled with rolling chairs that allow for daily seating reconfigurations, and the schools’ Artifact Lab, filled with items from the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s collections. 

“Curriculum here is proficiency based, not based on letter grades,” Esteban explained. “Students are encouraged to showcase their knowledge in certain subjects outside of tests.” 

He recalled his sixth grade class of 60 kids learning at the Van Andel Museum Center in 2015. 

“It was a new thing and we were guinea pigs,” he said. “Whenever they tried something new, they tried it with us and fixed it for future classes. We built this school through trial and error.

“It was very bare bones when it started. We didn’t have hot lunches and only had access to two classrooms at the museum. In seventh grade, we were granted use of the whole fourth floor.”

Now he is part of the first graduating class of the museum’s high school and one of 30 of the “original mastodons” who attended from sixth through twelfth grade.  

Seniors Bella DeLong, left, and Natalie Carmichael are members of the Grand Rapids Public Museum High School’s first graduating class (courtesy Esteban Clark-Braendle)

‘Freedom’ in Project-based Learning

Since opening in 2018, the high school set out to build on the work the students completed in middle school.

The high school, partially funded by a $10 million grant from the XQ Super School Project, developed from a cooperative effort between the City of Grand Rapids and GRPS.

Additional school partners include the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Kendall College of Art and Design, and Grand Valley State University’s College of Education.

‘As the first graduating class, we were free to build a culture that was wanted; a family that is dynamic, passionate, accepting and quirky. We leave a legacy as the founders of museum school culture and laid the groundwork for future students.’

– 2022 grad Jordan Fridsma

Museum archives collaborate with modern technology to provide hands-on learning experiences for students to apply conceptual knowledge to real-world projects. 

During his four years, Esteban rented camera and video equipment from the Design Lab to pursue his passion for photography and film, while completing class assignments. 

“We have a lot of freedom to pursue personal projects, as well as class projects,” he said. “We build on skills that were already growing and then you can present your work and have a teacher tell you it’s proficient.

“I don’t know what ‘normal school’ is like,” Esteban said. “(Project-based learning) is more freeing than I expected.”

He described teachers there as facilitators rather than full-time lecturers. Each lesson module starts with an explanation and then students are encouraged to develop and create projects that fit their interests and skills. 

“Students come to me with ideas and I give them insight or access to equipment,” said career and technical education teacher Alex Lawton, dubbed by Esteban as the “master of making things.” 

And on paper, science teacher Ben Hoff explains his role simply as “I teach science.” 

“But he’s also a life coach,” Esteban added. 

Said Hoff, “Our seniors have spent the last four years learning how to solve problems and create projects using and strengthening skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives. I know they’ll continue to use those skills in whatever they pursue.”

The Grand Rapids Public Museum High School celebrated its commencement ceremony on May 24 at Houseman Field (courtesy Esteban Clark-Braendle)

Sending Off the Class of 2022

At the commencement ceremony, Principal Christopher Hanks acknowledged the “long, strange road” traveled by the inaugural graduating class. 

“When the class of 2022 stepped into the building four years ago, (they) boldly stepped into the unknown,” he said. “You all are so capable of overcoming obstacles along the way, even when disruptions can seem overwhelming.”

He added: “The future is always uncertain, but I believe in you; everyone here believes in you and we are always in their corner. You are all talented and resilient, curators of stories and stewards of your community.” 

Dale Robertson, president and CEO of Grand Rapids Public Museum, also shared his remarks with the senior class.

“The museum school education you’ve received is a unique asset, one that allows you to lead, and lead change,” he said. “You’re steps ahead of the world already with this combination of skills and experience, and that sets you apart… you made this reimagination of an XQ super school high school into a reality.”

One of five valedictorians from the class of 2022, senior Jordan Fridsma, center, spoke at the commencement ceremony (courtesy Esteban Clark-Braendle)

Jordan Fridsma spoke at commencement as one of five class valedictorians.   

“As the first graduating class, we were free to build a culture that was wanted; a family that is dynamic, passionate, accepting and quirky,” she said. “We leave a legacy as the founders of museum school culture and laid the groundwork for future students.”

Despite the thorns of the last four years, Jordan thanked her peers, teachers, parents and the community for not giving up on “this little rosebud of a school.”

“I believe our generation’s struggles make us exceptionally resilient against hardship,” she said. 

Jordan concluded her speech with lessons learned from her time at the Public Museum High School. 

“Be flexible and kind, and don’t go with the flow of inequality. Remember the danger of a single story; ask for help even when you don’t know how, set realistic and flexible goals and remember to give yourself grace,” she said.

Jordan plans to attend Calvin University in the fall.

Esteban is taking a gap year to pursue work in film and media in Grand Rapids.

His advice to future museum school students: build relationships with your teachers and to take advantage of their connections outside of school. 

“This school is something that is living and always changing,” he said. “Each student is an architect who left their mark on our school. It made us stronger, more empathetic and curious people.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio

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