- Associated Press - Thursday, September 10, 2015

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - Esteban Clark Braendle likes being able to tell his friends there is an enormous 76-foot skeleton of a fin whale at his school, and that’s just one unique feature that others can’t match.

Braendle is among the 60 sixth-graders who attend the first classes at the new Grand Rapids Public Museum School, which is based at the public museum, according to The Grand Rapids Press ( https://bit.ly/1QkkYme ).

“It is just really cool the way they have you interact with everything,” said Esteban, of Belmont, who attended a three-day orientation retreat in August. “I just really like the idea of attending school in a museum.”

His mother, Anna Maria Clark said she and her husband feel the Museum School is the perfect place for Esteban because he is “extremely innovative and creative.”

“I think it is going to be a phenomenal experience,” she said. “We love the engagement, the hands-on projects, collaborative group work and being able to study in a place of discovery.”

GRPS plans to use “design thinking” - a creative approach to problem solving - to develop lessons and curriculum, guide students through projects, and foster a school culture of curiosity, creativity and collaboration.

Besides having access to the museum’s artifacts, students also explore and learn throughout the community.

“The one thing that all our learners have in common is that the museum inspires them,” said Principal Christopher Hanks, a former assistant professor in Grand Valley State University’s Undergraduate Foundations of Education Program. “We wanted teachers who were willing to take risks and try something new.”

“We have experienced, good teachers who have demonstrated an ability to build relationships with students.”

The three teachers who emerged from the highly sought after positions that drew about 50 applications are:

- Abbie Marr, who teaches English Language Arts and social studies. In her 11th year with GRPS, Marr taught fifth grade at Harrison Park School.

- Emily Miner teaches math and science. She is a native of the area who spent the last two years teaching in Olympia, Washington, with the nonprofit Nature Bridge, which provides hands-on environmental science programs for children and teens who are immersed in our national parks. She previously taught two years in Detroit.

- Kim Rowland, a teacher for nine years, is the school’s curriculum integration specialist. She was an educator with Groundswell, a local coalition of community partners that creates opportunities for hands-on environmental learning for students at Kent County schools. She also taught at All Saints Academy.

“The reason I wanted to be here is because I think the education is going to be authentic because the students are going to experience what they are learning, not just absorb it through a textbook,” Rowland said.

“They are going to be out in the community and they will have a great idea of what it means to be part of a community, how to add to it and have an impact. I’ve done a lot of placed-based education.”

Hanks said place-based education gets learners involved in their community through real-world problem solving. He said students get to understand the world through their immediate environment and the museum’s resources will serve to connect them to the history of the community and help them learn.

Bethany DeBlaay said they’ve always been interested in learning that is collaborative and integrates core concepts into projects for their daughter, Raya, who graduated from the Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center, a K-5 charter school authorized by GRPS.

“I wish every sixth-grader could go to the school,” she said. “The orientation only fueled her excitement to be in the program.”

Raya, 11, said she likes that the majority of their learning will be outside the classroom. She said they were broken up into six groups of 10 for a letter box project that took them all around downtown.

Students, who are issued iPad minis, are assigned to two classrooms on the third floor of the museum. The school plans to gradually expand to a high school, adding a grade each year. The fourth floor is slated for renovations to become the middle school. The city-owned historic former public museum is the future site of the high school program.

Students are required to attend one hour-long after-school class a week. There will be six options taught by people in the community with expertise, who submitted proposals. “Rewilding (Primitive Skills),” ”Grand River Timeline (History Kiosk),” and “Are You Surreal? (Surrealist Painting),” are just a few of the titles.

Besides the Public Museum, GRPS has multiple partners in the initiative, including the City of Grand Rapids, Kendall College of Art and Design, Grand Valley State University, the Downtown Development Authority and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

The Museum School is not a test-in program. Some 160 families applied through a lottery process. There was an interview process with families to discuss program rigor and parent and student expectations.

Eighty-five percent of the students reside within the city boundaries. Approximately half of the students were not GRPS students previously, attending other districts, charters and private schools.

“We have an incredibly diverse student body in many respects,” Hanks said.

Minor said she is excited about having the opportunity to go on field trips and do more real-world teaching and learning.

“I got a chance to see what kids are like when they get to actually be actively participating in their learning,” said Miner, about her outdoor education work with NatureBridge.

“These students are going to be actively participating in designing their own school experience because they are the inaugural class. They are really, really curious and excited to be here.”

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Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, https://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids

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