The darkened halls of Forrest Hills Elementary, which closed three years ago, will soon be filled again with the sounds of children rushing back and forth to class, or to the field for recess.
Last year, The Museum School in Avondale Estates was granted a five-year charter by the DeKalb County School District (DCSD). The charter also included a lease agreement allowing the school to relocate to Forrest Hills and use the space rent-free.
“We’re not building anything but it requires some pretty extensive renovations. It was built in the 1950s, and then they added on sections in the ‘70s and ‘90s. It just requires some HVAC work, and some additional work to get it up to code,” Museum School Principal Katherine Kelbaugh said.
Kelbaugh said she was appreciative to DCSD for letting the school use its vacant facility at Forrest Hills because the Museum School is currently made up of only a few classroom trailers.
“We just have classroom space here and the media center. We have to go to the cafeteria in the church next door for our students to eat lunch and have recess…but Forrest Hills has big beautiful fields, there’s a playground and a gym and a cafeteria,” Kelbaugh said.
Kelbaugh said the school will be using a five-year phase-in plan with the Forrest Hills facility. Students will be moving into the newest addition of the facility this fall, while construction on the older parts of the building is finished. Each year, as construction is completed, the school will expand into the newly refurbished areas.
“June 15 we’ll be officially out of these [trailers],” Kelbaugh said. “We’ll move our teachers into Forrest Hills toward the end of July and then our students will start school on Aug. 6.”
The Museum School currently serves kindergarten through fourth grade, but Kelbaugh said it will be adding a grade level each year until it reaches eighth grade.
“We had our lottery a couple of weeks ago and have over 200 students on our wait list. So, the school is definitely growing,” Kelbaugh said. Currently, the school has a student population of 200.
The construction on Forrest Hills will cost approximately $4 million, but Kelbaugh said since it is a phase-in plan, and DCSD’s agreement with the school is rent-free, it will pay approximately $1 million for construction out of its operating budget over the next five years. The school has also kicked off a fundraising campaign to help raise the additional funds needed for the construction.
The Museum School is the first school in Georgia using the museum school model. Kelbaugh said there are approximately 30 schools around the country using it.
“The museum school model is a model that has the school partnering with local museums, organizations and centers, and offers the students a chance to get out of the classrooms to truly experience real life and hands-on learning,” Kelbaugh said.
Every other week, students travel off campus on “learning expeditions,” which are focused on lessons and topics the students are studying in the classroom. Kelbaugh said the school year is structured into four nine-week units, each with an overarching theme.
“The theme breaks down into each grade level based on state standards. At the end of each of those nine weeks the school becomes a museum. During exhibit night, students are trained as docents, and they display their projects and actually verbalize their learning,” Kelbaugh said.
Although the school has only been open for a year, Kelbaugh said its students have shown success when compared to other students around the state.
“Our third graders—due to the state testing schedule—were the only students in the school to take the CRCT but they did remarkably well. One hundred percent of our third graders met or exceeded state standards in the areas of reading/language arts and science,” Kelbaugh said. “That was just after one year and we completely attribute that to the science and social studies curriculum map.”
Beginning with the 2012-13 school year, Kelbaugh said the school’s attendance zone has changed slightly.
“Focus area one is the districts of Avondale Elementary, Midway Elementary and Knollwood Elementary. Any students living in those three elementary school districts would be eligible to attend and receive preference in the lottery. Then, our focus area two is all of DeKalb County,” Kelbaugh said. “Currently, we have more students on the waiting list than we’re serving at the school, which is definitely a testament to the school.”
Kelbaugh said the school also has a low staff turnover rate and she is expecting all of the 32 full- and part-time staff members to return in the fall. Additionally, the school will be hiring three new teachers to keep up with its growth.
“We’ve hosted visits from teachers across the state who are interested in this curriculum and we’ve already started serving as a model for local universities and colleges to send student teachers,” Kelbaugh said.