The Museum School Takes Learning from the Classroom to the Cultural Community

November 10, 2015

  • Print
In the heart of San Diego rests Balboa Park, the nation's largest urban park with 15 major museums, performing arts venues, luscious gardens, and a world famous zoo. Nestled on the outskirts of this cultural mecca is the Museum School. Every day, this San Diego charter school enriches the lives of 230 elementary school students by providing them with an academic environment that focuses on project-based learning that infuses arts and culture into the school curriculum.

While the daily attendance takes place on school grounds, many students, parents and teachers feel as if the museums are really the classrooms. Jennifer Hughes was drawn to the Museum School even before she was a parent. Living in the Balboa Park community, Hughes loved seeing what the school was doing with area museums and knew its whole-child approach to learning was the kind of environment she wanted for her future family. When Hughes became a parent and her son, Theo, was ready for kindergarten, there was no other choice but the Museum School.

"Museum School is the place you want to be if you look at your child's learning from different perspective," said Hughes. "It's a school where your participation in the enrichment process for all the student is important and vital to the survival of the school."

A Cultural Mecca of Learning
The Museum School is a tuition-free, public charter school that serves approximately 230 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The student population is diverse - ethnically and socioeconomically - and comes from neighborhoods throughout San Diego County.

The Museum School was founded in 1998 as part of San Diego's Children's Museum. The school has since become independent, but has kept their focus on learning beyond the classroom and into the educational institutions in Balboa Park and the city.

The institution's curriculum goes beyond the basics by teaching kids how to learn and providing opportunities to understand why they are learning. This is done through enriching classes such as art, music, sewing, movement, and media arts. Phil Beaumont, Director of the Museum Charter School, explains why the project-based and experiential learning is a key component to the school's success.

"When we devised this school 18 years ago, we asked ourselves what we remembered about school, and what did we find exciting that made us want to come back," said Beaumont. "It was the experiential things and field trips that helped us apply the learning and see where it could take us. Those activities helped answer the question, 'Why am I learning this?'"

Students at the Museum School engage in an interactive learning experience that is made up of different classes (called departments) that change annually. The departments comprised of small groups of students from third through eighth grade. Kids rotate through the departments doing project-based work, and give a culminating presentation or project at the end of the term. The department work typically revolves around field trips to local museums that bridge the classroom learning to the practical application.

For example, students in the drama department work closely with The Old Globe Theater and have the opportunity to learn acting and theater. The culmination of their learning is a 45-minute performance every six weeks. Student taking classes in the Olympic Department learn about sports and players by visiting the Hall of Champions Museum and Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista.

It's not only arts and culture that is infused in Museum School curriculum. The school also boasts strong science and math components as well. Those core competencies are infused with the project-based, museum curriculum. Students studying animals and zoology as part of the science department will learn at the San Diego Zoo as well.

The Keys to Success: Charter and Parents
One of the main reasons Museum School has seen tremendous success among its students is because of its status as a charter school.

"Within the charter movement, you are able to hire staff who are invested in the mission of your school," said Beaumont. "That makes a huge difference, to be able to bring together people who want to be part of this and bring their passions along. It ensures you will have the best program you can have."

Beaumont also credits the Museum Charter parent involvement as another reason for the school's success. "We have 100 percent parent involvement in a variety of forms," he said. "On any day, we have three to five parents helping in classrooms or at recess. We like to work with a parent's skillset and put them where they're comfortable."

A parent like Hughes is an example of that commitment. She started volunteering at Museum Charter when her son was in kindergarten. She spent some time volunteering during the lunch period of the middle school kids, as well as in her son's classroom.

"I remember noticing how at lunch, all the kids were eating together and no one was sitting alone," said Hughes. "The students cleaned up after themselves and cleaned the campus after going on to their next activity. I knew then this was the right spot for us and the best school for my child."

Parents have also played an active role in fundraising for the school. During difficult economic times, the parent association helped raise more than $100,000 each of the past six years, which has helped retain important school programs.

On the Horizon
The Museum School continues to thrive and grow each year. The school is developing its first honors program for the middle grades. It was also recently approved for grant funding through Proposition Z, which will allow the Museum School to obtain a new school site. Beaumont is particularly excited about the prospect of creating an actual museum within the school grounds. This large exhibition space will allow students to show off their academic work to the community and parents.

From the curriculum to the teachers to fellow parents, all of these components assure parents like Hughes she made the right school choice for her family. Hughes recalls in agreement her son's statement about their school. "I knew we made the right choice when my son said, 'We won the lottery. I got into the Museum School!'"