July 2008: Students Win When Tennessee Museums and Schools Partner

Students on a Learning Expedition at the Chattanooga Nature Center dig for fossils

Tennessee Aquarium

2004 National Leadership Grant

Students on a Learning Expedition at the Chattanooga Nature Center dig for fossils.

Web site:

Heather DeGaetano
Director of Development
(423) 785-4106


Seven Chattanooga museums, working closely with school principals, teachers, and parents, are using museum collections to enhance and energize the curricula of two museum magnet schools in Magnifying the Museums: Enhancing Chattanooga’s Museum Magnet School Partnership. The project was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) through a National Leadership Grant (NLG) due to its depth of the interaction with the schools and curriculum content, and the involvement of a wide range of museums.

"The curricula are so engaging and the students are so motivated and excited," said Jill Levine, Principal of the Normal Park Museum Magnet School. "The students remember what they’ve learned a year later and that translates into increased test scores. The partnership between the school and the museums is changing the way our kids think. They ask a lot of questions and they love learning."

Among the project’s many stimulating elements are weekly in-museum learning experiences called Learning Expeditions. Students enjoy dozens of in-museum programs on topics ranging from Cherokee culture to edible plants to Appalachian biodiversity. After each quarter, students host "Exhibit Night" at their schools where they display their own imaginative exhibits based on the Learning Expeditions, and, as docents, teach their parents what they’ve learned. Some of the exhibits are displayed in "real world" museums. During the course of the three-year grant, students from the two partner schools visited partner museums more than 35,000 times. An unexpected side benefit: middle schools students are volunteering at museums after school and during the summer, said Henry Schulson, Executive Director of the Creative Discovery Museum, a partner museum.

The project began in 2000 when the Hamilton County School District opened a museum magnet elementary and middle school as part of a larger magnet school initiative. The Chattanooga school superintendent invited the Tennessee Aquarium and six other museums to become educational partners with the Chattanooga Middle Museum Magnet School (CMMMS) and Normal Park Museum Magnet (NPMM). The consortium included Chattanooga Nature Center, Creative Discovery Museum, Chattanooga African-American Museum, Chattanooga Regional History Museum, Hunter Museum of American Art, Tennessee Aquarium and the Chattanooga Zoo, which joined in 2006. The presence of seven museums ensured the program’s sustainability over the long term because it allowed the work load to be spread over the entire group. IMLS awarded a National Leadership Grant to this project in 2004 to further enhance this unique Museum Magnet School partnership.

Principal Levine said that a critical component of the IMLS grant was the opportunity for teachers from both schools to spend an entire week learning about the museum partners, planning their Learning Expeditions and Field Studies, and working with education consultants.

"Unless we give focused time for teachers to plan, think, and work with the museums, it wouldn’t happen. The teachers and the museum educators sit around a big table and plan the curricula," said Heather DeGaetano, Director of Development at the Tennessee Aquarium and NLG project director.

In addition to the week-long summer planning session, each quarter the schools have a planning day where teachers, school-museum liaisons, and museum partners work together to plan the upcoming quarter’s Learning Expeditions. Once the Learning Expeditions are planned, the liaisons schedule the schools’ visits to museums, arrange special programs with museum staff, guide groups at the museums, and bring outreach programs to the schools.

"We plan the programs together. It allows us to show the kids a lot more of the museum collections because they connect directly into their curriculum," DeGaetano said.

Partner museums have worked hard to understand how schools work and to make the schools feel part of the museum family. The Passport Program, for example, gives museum magnet school students, parents, and teachers free admission to all seven participating museums. Parents are offered involvement hours for using the Passport to attend museums, which they can apply to the 18 hours of parental involvement required each school year. The Passports also allowed teachers to visit museums on their own time, view the newest exhibits, and gain a more complete understanding of their partners' missions.

"Sometimes you have to just open your doors. It wasn’t prohibitively expensive and it’s worth the investment from the museums’ point of view because our collections are used in an ongoing basis and we can have a meaningful impact on school children," Schulson said.

Museums experience other benefits such as strengthening their own educational efforts by testing out programs on the students. "We tested out a program on biofuels so the schools acted as learning labs. This is very valuable to museums," he said. "We are developing new programs that can be used with any school that brings in students to learn."

Museums are taking the program farther, for example, by forming an educator’s roundtable called the Association of Chattanooga Museum Educators to consider joint programming, ways to support regional schools, and efforts to continue the work begun by this grant.

"We had done some work with other museums but this project improved communication and bettered our relationships. We are now sharing ideas and information to build capacity across the museum community. I know someone at every museum now," DeGaetano said

"One of the reasons it worked well in Chattanooga is that the city, schools, and museums were committed to the collaboration," Schulson noted.

The investment in collaboration has paid off. Teachers, students, and parents are more comfortable using museums and museums have a better understanding of how to serve those audiences. Teachers and museum staff are trying new and innovative approaches to teaching students through a museum curriculum. Teachers participate in after-school and summer fellowships where they develop new programs and resources for use by the museums in their work with schools across the region.

Success breeds success: Normal Park won the Ronald P. Simpson Distinguished Merit Award from Magnet Schools of America in 2005 and has been named a School of Excellence every year since 2004. Other districts are visiting to see if they might adopt some of the best practices, Levine said. This fall, the Chattanooga Middle School will become part of the Normal Park Museum Magnet School to ensure continuity within the program.

"Since we started, magnet schools are cropping up across the country," Levine said. "We’ve had visitors from Miami, Knoxville, and Springfield schools that have adopted our model for their own schools. So there are little Normal Parks all across the country. The grant is not just about us, it’s about sharing the model across the country."