- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

CityVision is the far-seeing name of a 12-year-old program at the National Building Museum that teaches middle school students how good design can be used to promote good communities.

That’s a big concept for some of the participants — volatile 12- and 13-year-olds, most of whom, before joining the program, had never visited the museum or been asked to think about the built environment around them and how they might improve it.

While utopian in concept, the program’s actual workings are very down-to-earth.

Every Tuesday since early March, about 30 students from two city public schools — R.H. Terrell Junior High School and MacFarland Middle School — and one public charter school — Paul Public Charter School — have made the museum their classroom for more than four hours when they were not out on related field trips. In addition to museum staff, volunteer mentors include a city planner, two architects, an engineer and several retired teachers.

In just about 12 sessions, students are exposed to all aspects of urban planning — studying a particular site and then coming up with concrete drawings and schemes, following course outlines developed during the program’s 12-year history at the museum. A Word Wall lists key architectural and building terms near a board filled with photographs titled “Great Buildings of the World.” “Texts” are the materials produced by students following their exposure to all the elements involved.

“It gives children a way to solve problems — how to think things through clearly and organize,” says Elizabeth Teferra, a 30-year veteran of D.C. public schools and a 10-year volunteer with CityVision. “We try to get them to see that as they get older, they have some power and need to think about how they can make changes in their environment.”

The special challenge this semester — different schools and a different project are involved each semester — has been to create a plan for restoring and reusing the abandoned Alexander Crummell School, located on 2 acres in Ivy City, a small, triangular-shaped section bounded by West Virginia, Florida and New York avenues in Northeast.

The school, which is considered a historic site, was erected in 1912 from a design by the city’s first official architect and named for a 19th-century black abolitionist, educator and clergyman. It was abandoned in 1981 in the wake of desegregation and the dispersal of students and families to more promising sections of the city.

“When the school shut down, the community really shut down. It’s blighted now,” says Julian Looney, the museum’s assistant coordinator of outreach programs. He credits the grass-roots nonprofit organization Empower DC with the concept of focusing attention on one particular building and neighborhood.

As part of their research, students met with Ivy City residents to get their views. Working in three teams, they drew up interim proposals that were reviewed by a jury of residents and professionals in April, leading up to a final presentation that took place last week in the museum’s Great Hall before parents and jury members.

“I certainly don’t pull any punches [when judging],” says architect Rick Schneider of Inscape Studio, a volunteer juror who is an enthusiastic supporter of the program. “It’s understanding what you can expect at that level and telling them what you see. You mix praise and criticism in saying how to improve [their designs].”

“The juror’s job is to comment on what makes sense and what else might make better sense,” notes Deborah Crain, neighborhood planning coordinator for Ward 5 in the D.C. Office of City Planning, who says she wishes CityVision could be expanded to reach all city middle schools.

Having the students — who come from other parts of the District — come into Ivy City and show interest in the area has emboldened the residents whose initial participation was “difficult,” she says. “It even has made them feel it is possible to effect change on the site.”

Ms. Crain won’t predict whether any of the students’ suggestions will be put into practice. It is up to the City Council to determine the fate of the Crummell site, but there has been no movement on the matter for two years, she says.

Other field trips took students to sites representing three ways of converting old schools to new uses: the Results gym and the Bryan School Lofts are on Capitol Hill, while a former high school in far Southeast is undergoing a major renovation to become the new home of Anacostia’s Thurgood Marshall Public Charter School.

Program officials made sure each of the three teams included students from all three schools so they would get to know people from other parts of the city and not just stick with their friends.

One recent Tuesday morning, groups from each of the teams worked doggedly at separate tables in the two rooms the museum sets aside for classes. Some were busy planning the PowerPoint presentation that would be part of the final presentation. Another group had decided to act out a “commercial” onstage for their design rather than rely on the computer. Still others were laboring over the exact measurements of a design’s various components with rulers scaled so one-eighth of an inch represented 1 foot.

Most of the teams’ plans included a community and day care center, recreation area, a police station, health clinic, library and adult education classrooms.

Sharra Brockington, 13, a student at R.H. Terrell Junior High, and Glenda Moran, 12, of the Paul Public Charter School, were struggling with details on the layout of the basement in the main building.

“Think whether you want to do a gym or a cafeteria,” suggested mentor Mary Finkenbinder, a former teacher.

Energy levels go down just before the noon break. A delivery man appeared, and soon the smell of warm pizza filled the air.

“I want to see some ideas before lunch,” said volunteer mentor Daniel Shapiro, a product engineer “between jobs” who is considering going to architecture school. He had been gently quizzing students to get them to enunciate reasons for what they had put down on paper.

“The children showed up very timid [at first] because they aren’t used to being given open-ended questions. But they are extremely bright. They just kind of gradually blossomed. It is like opening the floodgates to use their creative skills. Some are natural artists. Some have taken off on the computers. I’m just helping kids to show them aspects of what they need to know.”

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