School museums offer clues to neighborhood history
On Schenectady Street, three blocks away from Brooklyn's P.S. 243, a mattress spring patches the hole in a chain-link fence. This neighborhood, which has experienced dramatic hardship and violence, is now experiencing a counterwave of creative recovery.
P.S. 243 in Bedford Stuyvesant's Weeksville section is the site of a minimuseum symbolic of the recovery effort. The classroom museum was first established to house artifacts unearthed by students, teachers, and scout troops here 12 years ago. This group turned a rehabilitation project into an archaeological dig that yielded clues to community history and the beginning of a national education program.
As a local parent explains: ''There were old houses here which were being knocked down. There was so much noise from the bulldozers that the teachers said , 'Well, why not go out there and find out what's going on?' ''
A shovel from the original dig is one of the items on view in the school museum. Also on display are period costumes donated by The Metropolitan Museum of Art; books dating back to the 1800s, when P.S. 243 was known as Colored School No. 2; a ''knock-to'' bench that would have provided seating at the old school; wash tubs from local residences (today's students use these in water play activities); and an illustrated guide to the museum made by students last year, which was presented in the US House of Representatives by congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.
P.S. 243's museum, like other school-neighborhood museums in New York and across the country, is based on a growing recognition of ''community as classroom.'' Most notably in urban schools, the neighborhood museum becomes a multifaceted center where history, language arts, mathematics, science, and social development take on new dimensions for participating children.
Dr. Marguerite Thompson is staff developer and facilitator of the Bedford Stuyvesant concept, which has spread from P.S. 243 to 16 cities, including Milwaukee, Newark, N.J., and New Orleans. Dr. Thompson suggests that the museum's success has multiple roots: ''It works because we have parents as partners. It works because somebody in Washington believed in us. It works because the New York Board of Education believed in us. It works because we believe in ourselves.''
Dr. Thompson drew on professional connections with the Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan to design the Weeksville Curriculum, the basis of the program she is disseminating nationally. The Bank Street College, which specializes in early childhood education, places a priority on direct and active parent involvement in the education process. The college's philosophy also stresses the need for a positive self-image as a precondition for learning and the use of staff developers to carry out programs emphasizing language skills. These tenets are interwoven in the Weeksville Curriculum.
Several grants, including one from the federal Office of Education, are the financial mainstays of the P.S. 243 museum and its adjuncts.
''It's not an expensive program to replicate. It's just a matter of putting resources together,'' Dr. Thompson says. ''Like everybody else in education today, we're uncertain about future funding. But we're convinced this kind of education should be for every child, and we've seen. . .that there are many ways of making a thing move.''
Across New York City, in a Bronx neighborhood that would understand Bedford Stuyvesant's drive to surmount difficulties, there is another example of the classroom museum. There are differences between the museum at P.S. 243 and the one at P.S. 100, however.
Teacher Jocelyn Fickling-Harley, who started the P.S. 100 museum in 1980, enlisted her fourth- and, more recently, second-grade underachiever classes as museum staff. The Brooklyn museum sought student help at all achievement and elementary-grade levels.
Bedford Stuyvesant's Weeksville section was a black village during the 1800s, and many of today's residents have access, either via oral history or actual materials, to traces of that heritage. P.S. 100 is situated in an area that underwent ethnic change 20 years ago. At that time the neighborhood's populace was largely white. Today, the school reflects the neighborhood's half-black half-Hispanic mix.
Whereas the language arts are the learning vehicle in the Bedford Stuyvesant program, Ms. Fickling-Harley has made ''a sense of time through photography'' the vehicle for her program. Along with an old playground maypole that is centerpiece of the P.S. 100 museum, there is also a pictorial time line on the wall.
''Time merges and blurs for little children,'' Ms. Fickling-Harley says. ''When we first started, Martin Luther King could have been a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln for most of them.''
The P.S. 100 museum's concentrates on the past 20 years - the life span of the school. Like the Bedford Stuyvesant museum, parent involvement is paramount. At P.S. 100, parents do volunteer cataloging, and a ''Friends of the Museum'' committee has been the program's main funding source.
Ms. Fickling-Harley's plans are tailored to a single classroom, although the museum is open to all students.
The teacher and her second graders are currently building a special exhibit, ''Between Hopscotch and Double Dutch,'' a 20-year history of play at P.S. 100