STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Why settle for a field trip? Now, more museums are the school.

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Not a field trip.

"I need to find a decomposer."

Bryce Gidley is learning about ecological communities. It just so happens he’s surrounded, immersed really, in long hallway full of ecological communities on display. He’s on the third floor of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, standing in front of a wetlands display, about 50 steps away from his new classroom.

"You guys had a question about what is a decomposer," says Mike Posthumus, an educator with the Grand Rapids Public Museum. 

"I’m going to write fish," Gidley says.

"You have to go write a specific kind of fish," Posthumus replies.

Gidley heads off to a display with different kinds of fish. 

"Bluegill!" he says.

Posthumus will be working with these kids a lot this year, at the new Grand Rapids Public Museum School. Posthumus says they won’t just be staying inside. They’ll also go out into the community around the museum, in downtown Grand Rapids, and around the river, right next to the museum.

"Those are literally the living textbooks that we can utilize to ignite that fire for learning in students," Posthumus says. "Because it’s tangible, and they can see and feel it and touch it."

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A vote is underway to name the bear.

That kind of thinking is also infused in the actual classroom, where students sit around at tables the way most students sit, except that in the corner, there’s a taxidermied bear wearing a hat. And over on a shelf, there’s a container of some kind of bones.

Emily Miner is the teacher in this classroom. She says, clearly, this is not your typical school.

"I think the engagement level of the kids is a lot higher here," Miner says. "Like they all seem to genuinely want to be here, which is a foreign concept to me. That was not the case at the traditional school I was in, because they did not have any choice in which school they went to, or any say in what they learned about or how they learned about it, so they were more checked out than these kids are.

These kids chose to be here. Quite a few of them came here to this Grand Rapids Public School, from outside the district.

Like Nailah Evans, who went to a charter school last year.

"I want to be a designer when I grow up," Evans says. "And the museum has a lot of art in it."

And Adrianna Beard, who lives an hour away from Grand Rapids.

"You must really like it," I say to her.

"Yep," she says. "It’s awesome … because I want to try something new and this is a once in a lifetime experience, so why not?"

That once in a lifetime opportunity is maybe why more museum schools are popping up all around the country. In Michigan, there’s already a museum school at the Henry Ford in Dearborn, plus a middle school at the Science Center in Detroit. Last year a new organization formed, the National Association of Museum Schools, which lists at least 30 museum schools nationwide.

"We’re seeing a new flowering of this model in a number of different forms," says Elizabeth Merritt, founding director for the Center for the Future of Museums. She says the museum school movement is just about as old as museums themselves. But it is a movement that’s been growing over the past decade as both museums and schools look for new ways to serve their communities.

She points out that, right now, most kids don’t get a lot of exposure to museums, in part because there just aren’t enough museums to go around.

"Every school kid in the U.S. gets about one field trip to a museum every year," Merritt says. "So yeah, that’s not much. If you’re thinking about, what would it be like if every kid got to go to school in a museum, we’d need a lot more museums."

Or, more schools based in other community institutions, like a zoo school, or a nature center school, both of which already exist in Grand Rapids.

For right now, the Grand Rapids Museum School is just one grade, sixth grade, with about 60 students. More than twice that number applied to get in. There are already plans to expand in the years to come. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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