Thursday, Nov. 8, 2007 | Uncertainty clouds the future of the Museum School, an eclectic elementary once slated for the new Children’s Museum erected downtown. Museum trustees have twice deferred the school’s intended moving day, and are now questioning whether the 80-student school should move in at all.

With the site in jeopardy, Museum School teachers and parents fret that the close-knit school, which banked on a free home in the museum, won’t stay afloat unless hundreds more students are enrolled. That, in turn, could drastically alter the character of the small charter school — a school so tiny that its website refers parent volunteers to “Catherine (Basil’s mom).”

Meanwhile, the reversal flusters downtown boosters who backed the project, excited by both the museum and a school to attract families downtown. The absence of local schools pushes young parents away from the city’s core, they complain.

“We all expected (the school) to be there,” said Nancy Graham, president of the Centre City Development Corporation, San Diego’s downtown redevelopment arm. “It was one of the strong selling points. We’re disappointed.”

The Museum School is a charter school, established in 1995 by the Children’s Museum to provide kids with a hands-on learning experience in the most hands-on environment imaginable: a museum. It was first housed in a party room of the old Children’s Museum, at the museum’s expense.

Now, the school is operated by its own board, funded with public dollars, and partners with the museum to link kids with artists and their projects. The museum board has little role in the school’s day-to-day operations, and no say in its budget or hiring. While builders labored to finish the new museum, its staff paid to rent space from Congregation Ohr Shalom in Bankers Hill, where the school remains to this day.

Plans for the new, rebuilt Children’s Museum had long included space for the Museum School, free of charge, both school staff and museum staff said. But the museum never formally agreed to house the school.

“There was, is not, and has never been a formal of legal agreement,” said Jessica Hanson, manager of marketing and communications for the San Diego Children’s Museum. “It was obviously a tacit agreement, because the museum has always housed the school, and there was a tacit understanding that the school would move into the (new) museum building.”

Parents were incensed by the museum’s waffling, citing years of fundraisers and planning that put Museum School students side-by-side with museum boosters. Teachers had already hauled desks and supplies into the museum, expecting to move in this fall; years earlier, they helped architects choose between swatches of carpet for the classroom floors.

“The space is custom-designed for the school to fit in there along with the museum,” said Gary Smith, president of Downtown San Diego Residents Group. “I’m not sure that the museum becomes a viable entity without the school there, and I’m not sure the school is viable separate from the museum.”

Museum staff said no decision has been made, and trustees are still accepting input from parents, teachers and school staff. But the new trustees seem less enthusiastic about the Museum School than the board members they replaced, who backed the school project and oversaw a custom-designed space for the school in the new museum. Board members have indicated that they may want to use the space to serve a bigger, more diverse group of children.

“The big question is, do we put resources into really deeply serving 80 students, versus serving — in a different way — a larger number of students?” Hanson said. “There’s no specific plans at this point.”

On Nov. 14, museum trustees will vote on whether to house the school in the museum in 2008, or ever again. The murky future of the school worries director Phil Beaumont, who said the pint-sized school can’t afford to pay rent.

This year, the museum has pledged to cover the school’s rent at Ohr Shalom. Beaumont is grateful for the museum’s support, now and in the past. But if the museum pulls its support next year, the school won’t make rent unless it enrolls hundreds more students to bring in more attendance dollars from the state. That runs smack into the school’s smaller-is-better philosophy, which allows teachers to hold mixed-age classes, take off on impromptu field trips and know every student’s name.

“The change would have to be so drastic,” said Gingerlily Lowe-Brisby, an actress and teacher who has worked at Museum School for nine years. Recently, she built a free-flowing lesson around oceanography, where kids dissected clams, served up clam chowder, and dipped real fish in paint to create ‘fish-prints.’ “Which is a shame, because this is the beauty of a small school.”

And it’s too late for the Museum School to seek help from the San Diego Unified School District, said Peter Rivera, program manager in the district’s Office of School Choice: The deadline for charter schools to apply for public buildings was Oct. 1.

Museum School employs only four permanent teachers, a smattering of part-time artists, and operates on a $500,000 budget, Beaumont said. Last year, Ohr Shalom charged $86,000 in rent to the museum, Hanson said, and that figure is likely to climb with housing values this year.

“This decision really caught us off guard,” Beaumont said.

For Lizbeth Persons-Price, whose daughter Teah enrolled at Museum School this year, putting the school squarely in the museum is key to its hands-on learning philosophy. Teah, who is visually impaired, was “disappearing” during three-hour blocks of reading, Persons-Price said. She dreaded school. At Museum School, she learns through hands-on projects and Socratic seminars and tries her hand at Indonesian instruments and yoga. To understand the digestive system, she played the small intestine in a skit.

“The whole concept of the school … is to actually go to school in the museum, to have the child’s life be part of the museum, and the museum part of the child’s life,” Persons-Price said. “That philosophy rang true to me … And the whole time they’ve been raising money, down to the architecture plans and the meetings with CCDC to get the permits approved — it’s always included the school.

“It’s their baby,” Persons-Price concluded. “And they’re tossing the baby out.”

Trustee Laurie Mitchell, president of the Museum board, could not be reached for comment before press time Wednesday.

The board’s concerns about serving more diverse children may stem from the Museum School’s relatively low percentage of poor children, compared to most San Diego public schools. The school, which enshrines diversity as a part of its mission statement, enrolled 27.6 percent low-income students in 2006, which places it 109th among 128 San Diego public elementary schools in percentage of poor students. Its racial makeup is split, unlike the homogeneous schools on either end of the district’s spectrum. Its student body is 41 percent white, 35 percent Latino, 12 percent black and 5 percent Asian.

Still, to Garry Papers, an architect whose son attended Museum School between 2001 and 2004, serving more kids instead of hosting the school is “a totally false trade-off,” especially in light of Beaumont’s statements that the school would happily share its space.

“They can have the school, and still cater to many visiting schoolkids,” Papers said. “They seem to be taking a totally business attitude toward the facility, and forgetting about their cultural and educational mission … If they feel that having excited and energetic students in the building is somehow a liability, they’re totally backwards.”

And others complain that as the expense of the museum’s adjacent park exploded, the museum pointed to the school for justification. Taxpayer dollars paid to restructure Island Avenue as a kid-safe area, for students running between the museum and recess in the park, said Smith. He estimated that the park project went over budget by 30 percent, “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. Its designer could not be reached by press time to confirm Smith’s estimate.

“The budget was pretty hefty,” Smith said, “but we decided to pay, so the children could go out to their recess area.”

Lowe-Brisby is disheartened to see the new museum space dangled before the school, perhaps now to be taken away. But at a school where lessons are found in kitchens, recycling bins and museums, teachers can find a way “to make almost anything work,” she said. That is, if they can pay for the space.

Wednesday, Beaumont crouched alongside a heap of plastic bottles, and traded questions with his students, who collected the trash to replicate the Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive pile of plastics accumulating in the middle of the ocean. Ultimately, he wants the kids to build an art installation out of the bottles, to educate others about the issue.

“This plastic lasts how long?” he asked the kids, who sat facing him, swinging their feet off their bench.

Two and a half months, one girl replied. Another guessed: Between three and 300 years.

“Forever?” he prodded.

Forever, they answered.

But how long their school will last, no one knows.

(The original version of this story misspelled the name of Museum School spokeswoman Jessica Hanson. We regret the error.)

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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