K-12 Schools: Teachers, Students, and Administrators


Students who grow up attending public school in the United States are all too familiar with the concept of a “one and done” annual visit to a local museum. This means a visit that takes up a few hours of one school day, and in many communities occurs even less frequently than annually. For the purposes of this post we will be discussing the building of relationships between schools and museums in a more far-reaching way. This means long-term, sustained collaborations that last for years and involve having museum people in schools and school children in museums for much more than a single visit. We will be exploring how museums are working to engage K-12 schools and how to increase our ability to advocate for partnerships and programming that engages K-12 school audiences.

Why is this audience important?

I have talked to many museum practitioners who roll their eyes and audibly sigh when they see a schedule filled with school visits for that day. For those that have been in the museum field for a long time, school groups do not have the best reputation as a museum audience. They are loud, messy, unfocused, and want to touch everything. However, these school groups if handled correctly, and especially if we can get them accustomed to being in museums more often, hold a wealth of benefits for museums. Just to name a few:

  • if they enjoy their visit they will bring other members of their family and friend groups back to the museum
  • if the experience is impactful enough, they will also return to the museum in the future
  • if their needs of comfort, confidence, and choice are met, they will grow up wanting to continue to explore other museums

Selfish reasons aside, it is important to cater to this audience because:

  • Students from families in low income communities face many barriers to visiting museums that include but are not limited to: time off for their guardians, money, and transportation. A visit with their school may be the only chance they get to see the inside of a museum.
  • Many schools and teachers have to produce their own funding for museum visits, so finding ways as an institution to supplement this effort in any way will lead to even more fruitful relationships with schools.

Making the Grade: School Partners with Museums, Research Institutions

One of the best examples of a sustained collaboration between schools and museums are the museum schools that are popping up all over the country. Specifically, I would like to highlight the effectiveness of The Museum School in Decatur, Georgia, which is a public school and the first of its kind in the state.

  • 1 of 45 museum schools in the country
  • museum visits several times per month
  • students get input on programs in their development phase at museums
  • Decatur has one of the highest childhood poverty rates in the state, but students are outperforming other schools in their area
  • it is so popular that there are waiting lists to get in

The Museum School Website 

Atlanta Journal Constitution Article that summarizes their achievements

Museum Exhibition as a Culminating Event

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California actively partners with local schools as well as providing an enormous online library of resources that house lessons already set up to align with the Common Core Standards. A video outlining an example of one of these programs is below:


Other Examples of Innovative Partnerships

  • YES: Youth Exploring Science in St. Louis, Missouri
  • Grand Rapids Public Museum School in Grand Rapids, Michigan
    • place-based education where the classes are held inside the museum
    • part of a city-wide initiative
  • Pittsburgh’s City-Wide Initiative in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
    • “The Greater Pittsburgh Region is developing a 21st century model to provide children of all ages with opportunities for creative, collaborative, and connected learning. Leading this regional effort is the Kids+Creativity Network, a consortium of more than 100 organizations, including university-based research labs, museums, libraries and informal learning institutions, school districts and educational start-ups, child-serving agencies, and civic leaders.”


10 Ways to Build School/Community Partnerships

(as borrowed from this video)

  1. Give young people a voice.
  2. Plan for effective collaboration.
  3. Develop a shared vision.
  4. Establish clear roles and responsibilities for each partner.
  5. Engage in joint professional development.
  6. Blend school and museum staff in a specific way.
  7. Share accountability for a specific outcome.
  8. Engage the right leaders.
  9. Get help identifying diverse resources.
  10. Use the toolkit for expanding learning.

Further Reading:

8 thoughts on “K-12 Schools: Teachers, Students, and Administrators

  1. Danielle

    I agree – this is such an important audience to engage! Museums were such an important part of my education and I probably never would have enjoyed art and history if it weren’t for the multiple field trips to museums in elementary and middle school. What I find most exciting is the new and innovative museum school concepts. Nik Apostolides is trying to pave the way for a “Smithsonian High” to help DC teenagers – I think you’ll find it really interesting: https://openlabworkshop.wikispaces.com/Ignite+talk+-+Nik+Apostolides


  2. michelle

    Such a thoughtful post Kelly! It is unfortunate that some school groups have left a bad taste in the mouth of some museum institutions, but that just highlights the work that needs to be done. You’re absolutely right, we need to create a stronger more consistent relationship between schools and museums. This can be done through school projects based on museum collects, which could even work out of state because most museums now share their exhibits online. Another example would be clubs or students organization that may share similar interests with a local museum. I also wanted to mention how mind blown I am learning about museum schools! They really let the learner control the learning, which isn’t what you would usually see in a public school. Thank you for sharing the website for it. Found it to be very fascinating to read about.


  3. mep17ruthann

    I can remember as a kid how exciting the museum was. However it was a place to visit and fill out a work sheet that’s it. I’m sure the decades old model of taking kids to the museum is responsible for this limited view. Had I known then that museums could be sources of information and research, not just a day-cation with the class, I imagine my research papers would have been very different. Learning about museums as resources came much later in life for me. By teaching kids that the museum is a place of constant learning we can show them how to keep pursuing their interests and how to contribute to a community. Love the idea of better museum-school relationships, and schools based in museums, though I may be biased.


  4. caitlinefblake

    A very interesting read! I remember falling in love with museums as a child, but it wasn’t ever on a school trip– it was on trips with my mom. Another avenue where I think museums could do more would be to get involved with events such as National History Day and offer their institutions as places where students can do research for their projects. National History Day already works with the National Archives, but I think more institutions (on a national and local level) could do more to be involved.


  5. tkhorst

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful post! I completely understand what you mean by museum staff dreading school groups. After I took my middle schoolers to the Archives, one of the teachers commented on how one of the museum educators was rolling his eyes the entire time he was working with students. I think teachers are hesitant to take their students to museums because of the fear of being judged or of the students misbehaving. It’s a huge undertaking to get a large group of kids to a museum. I think that the partnerships you mentioned are really important for improving the comfort levels and confidence of both teachers and students in museums. Teachers need museum educators that understand their needs, and students need to feel respected. The National Portrait Gallery and SAAM, for example, do some awesome programs with Alice Deal MS. They even visit the school!


  6. erinmkohler

    Reaching this audience is important to creating lifelong interest in museums. I think your focus on the connection between schools and museums is important due to the level of comfort can provide for their students. While informal learning environments can be beneficial for families to experience together, being surrounded by peers helps children learn in really interesting ways. As a former formal educator, I look forward to being able to create bridges between schools and institutions myself!


  7. museumpeople

    Thanks Kelly–
    This is an audience I have spent most of my career serving and one of my favorites. It is also important to remember that when museums build strong partnerships with schools they are forming strong ties in the community and participating as a full member of the community. Very important, in addition to all the other great reasons you discuss.



  8. alw888

    Very informative! After interning at SEEC I was curious about the existence of similar programs for young people of lower-economic families. Some one recently told me that the SEEC teachers are helping public elementary school teachers develop curricula and have access to more field trips to Smithsonian museums. Several Smithsonian are also working on enhancing their outreach and educational initiatives.

    It is wonderful to learn about the existing museum and school collaborations. I wonder if there are professional online forums dedicated to considering how museums can be made more available to school-aged audiences?



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