D.C. Museum Aims To ‘Hook’ the ‘Tough Kids’

By Debra Viadero — January 09, 1991 7 min read
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Washington--Sean Lawson, a 7th-grade student from a tough neighborhood, attends school every weekday in a place some children only visit on field trips with their classes.

In one wing of Sean’s school, a replica of a Mexican village, complete with a live goat, has been set up. Another wing houses more than $250,000 worth of television production equipment, an animation studio, radio production facilities, and a photography lab. Other rooms contain a replica of a cave with prehistoric drawings and a stairway evoking a “tower of Babel” with continual broadcasts in several languages at once.

Sean’s “school” is the Capital Children’s Museum here.

The museum last year joined with District of Columbia public schools in launching an alternative program for 100 7th-grade students who are considered in danger of eventually dropping out of school.

The purpose of the venture, known as the Options School, is to draw on the museum’s rich resources and provide troubled students with an academic “pit stop” at a critical point in their lives. The students spend one academic year at the museum and then return to their home schools.

Formally launched in September, the Options School is among several collaborative ventures taking shape this year between public schools and museums. In Buffalo, for example, school officials in September opened a $20-million, science magnet school adjacent to the Buffalo Museum of Science. And school officials in St. Louis, under a court order to create attractive magnet schools to aid in desegregation efforts, are developing similar programs with the Missouri Botanical Gardens, the St. Louis Science Center, and the local zoo.

“It helps to complete our mission as an educational institution,” says Dennis M. Wint, president of the St. Louis Science Center.

“You can excite children’s imagination with a museum visit,” points out Ann W. Lewin, who oversees the Options School as founder and director of the National Learning Center, the nonprofit group that founded the Capital Children’s Museum, “but you can’t really take him along, day in and day out, on his cognitive development.”

Unlike the other efforts, though, the Options School is the only museum-school program that takes on “at risk” students, according to its founders. To participate, students must be from low-income families, and must be two grade levels behind on a test of basic skills. Sean, for example, who is 14, was struggling with 7th-grade work when he was chosen for the program in September.

The children’s museum, which also operates a preschool program for disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds, decided to take on troubled students in 1989 after local public-school officials announced that the city’s dropout rate had reached 50 percent, according to Ms. Lewin.

“I looked around at my staff and said, ‘We’re a children’s institution. Why don’t we look around and see if there’s receptivity to our working with the tough kids?”’ she says.

Encouraged by responses from local school officials, the museum abandoned its adult-education program, also known as Options School, and set to work on the new project.

The school district agreed to pay for the students’ breakfasts and lunches, provide them with bus tokens, and pay for the services of two social workers and a clerk--expenses estimated to total $3,000 a student. The remaining per-pupil cost--approximately $3,200--is borne by the museum.

The museum, though, “benefits” from the arrangement. In addition to their classwork, the students also work several hours each week as docents, explaining to visitors to the Mexican village, for example, how to make Mexican yarn paintings or expounding on the uses of a mocahete, or three-legged bowl.

Located on the second floor of one wing of the museum, the headquarters of the Options School has an unremarkable appearance. On a visit by a reporter last month, for example, students labored over worksheets in a room with Spartan furnishings.

The only exceptions to this mundane setting are several banks of personal computers, located in alcoves to the side of the main classroom, which students use to practice writing and to work on lessons designed to help them “catch up” with their peers in their regular schools.

Later in the day, the class dispersed for small classes in media arts, drama, and music. Students spend 8 to 12 weeks studying each specialty area.

In the radio class that afternoon, for example, students produced a news spot based on a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Three students in television production watched a videotape made by another student. And, in the museum’s auditorium, a girl practiced a “go-go” beat on the drums with Brother Ah, a musician who teaches at the school.

Ms. Lewin says the media-arts component of the program enables the museum to tap into student talents that traditional school programs have failed to reach.

“Museums have very special environments that are nontraditional and have the potential for hooking people whose interests run along a wide range of dimensions,” she says.

“Once we get a student hooked on something interesting to him, we can say, while this is his primary love, in order to do it he also needs to know this and this,” she adds.

Christopher Grotke, director of the museum’s media-arts program, says local professionals who come into the museum are often amazed to learn that the museum allows the students liberal use of its equipment.

“These kids go home to bad neighborhoods, and we like to show them $250,000 worth of equipment and say, ‘Here are the keys. Go ahead,”’ says Mr. Grotke, who also teaches a class on animation.

“Some of them find out they’re really good at something for the first time, and they just take off,” says the young instructor, who began his career at the museum as a volunteer tour guide.

Like Mr. Grotke, most of the 10 teachers in the program do not have traditional education-school training. The school’s radio instructor, Frank Stasio, is a former newscaster and producer for National Public Radio. A mathematics teacher in the remedial portion of the program recently graduated from Amherst College with a degree in history. And the school’s director, whose background is in criminal justice, most recently administered a national education program for high-school dropouts.

“I just hire people who are highly motivated,” Ms. Lewin says. “Not everybody wants to work with high-energy kids with a history of failure.”

District of Columbia school officials say the Options School has been able to circumvent local regulations requiring the hiring of certified teachers because it operates on a contract basis with the school system. Ms. Lewin says district officials have given her wide berth in administering the program.

“Everything that’s being done has failed for these kids,” she says. “If we’re going to do something different, we have to be different.’'

Freed from bureaucratic constraints, Ms. Lewin says she can hire enough teachers so that classes in the Options School have only 7 to 10 students.

“In the public school, it’d be like 40 people in one class, and the teacher can’t get around to help everybody,” Sean says. “Here they can.”

Teachers at Options say the small classes enable them to “meet students where they are” academically--a standard phrase at the school--and build from there.

“Some of these kids were back at a 3rd-or 4th-grade level,” Ms. Lewin says. “It’s preposterous to stand up there and teach everyone at a 7th-grade level.”

Whether their year at the museum school will have a profound impact on the students’ lives remains to be seen. Ms. Lewin says she is seeking funding for a formal evaluation of the program.

District school officials, in the meantime, have mailed a survey to the home schools of students who participated in a pilot class at Options last spring. The purpose of the survey is to gauge how the students fare once they return to regular schools, where individual attention is harder to come by and resources are scarce.

Museum and school officials do know, from tests administered to the pilot class last spring, that 65 of the 100 students had advanced two grade levels in reading and mathematics during their stay at Options. And local school officials involved in the effort have given the program high marks so far.

“I was just overwhelmed with the enthusiasm of the staff and the growth in the development of the children in the program last year,” says Earnest R. DeVoe, the district’s assistant superintendent in charge of the division of junior high schools.

But the school’s toughest critics are ultimately students like Sean. Noting that the school was farther from his home than his former school and that his school day was half an hour longer, he says the Options School, over all, is “in between.”

“It’s not bad, and it’s not good,” he says.

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