THE neighborhood around Martin Luther King elementary school is not ideal. Drug dealers and malingerers loiter at a corner beyond the school's fence. The homes in this economically depressed area are mostly old and run-down. But for a time recently, a city of bright colors arose at this urban school. It was mythical and mystical; the stuff of children's dreams. It had seven parks, a Fatburger stand, and no schools.
The city was called Boomtown, the byproduct of an innovative educational program to help young children understand the complexities of their constructed and natural environments.
In San Diego, that program is called BEEP (Built Environment Education Program). It brings together teachers, pupils, and working architects for a few months to study how humans create their environment and the consequences of those choices.
``The point of the program isn't to make all these students into architects, but to help them learn about the city and why it's there,'' says Michael Wilkes, a volunteer architect who participates in BEEP.
Programs similar to BEEP can be found throughout the country. According to Alan Sandler, director of educational programs for the national American Institute of Architects (AIA), more than 100 cities have such programs and the list is growing.
In each city, the program takes a different shape depending on local interests and resources. State and local chapters of the AIA often provide seed money that is combined with government grants and private donations. Working architects and architecture students provide the outside expertise.
In Oklahoma City, for example, 93 elementary school classes, each with an assisting architect, competed to design a classroom in space. The winning class got a visit to NASA headquarters in Houston.
In Philadelphia, local architects have worked for five years with public school children to inventory the city's architecture, everything from neighborhood building schemes to door styles.
And in San Diego, 27 fifth and sixth graders at King elementary built Boomtown from bits of paper, plastic, and assorted scraps.
Boomtown was born in Bungalow 8 on a 6-foot square of cardboard painted to resemble a peninsula. As the children gather around clutching their creations, teacher Carol Strahan asks what they want to build first in their city. Without hesitation, these inner-city children put down a blue-painted drug rehabilitation center.
Next comes a police station with a heliport and large garage for the riot response team. A center for runaway children appears across a nonexistent street, followed by a four-story hospital and a Baptist church.
One 11-year-old girl submits a gaudily painted apartment house that she insists meets ``Section 8,''the federal guidelines for low-income housing.
In an hour's time, Boomtown has become a paradoxical mix of fanciful musings and depressing facts. If the architects are stunned by the children's blunt allusions to life beyond school, they sort of expect suggestions like a city without schools.
Ms. Strahan gently urges the young city planners to consider how wide the streets should be and where city government ought to be located. ``It's very important that you realize that you can't just put things wherever you want,'' Strahan tells the class.
Boomtown finished, the class will move on to tougher jobs like redesigning their school. In the process, they will learn math, social studies, English, and science.
At another school in northern California, for example, students designed a fictitious zoo. By researching and writing about the animals and their needs, they covered science and English. By designing and building scale models, they learned some math and art.
Eventually, they prepared their zoo plan for presentation to the city council and got a civics lesson, too.
In one of Strahan's classes, nine-year-old Dorian Fowler is ebulliently submitting a proposal for a school snack bar.
``This is fun because it gives you a chance to use your brain and be creative,'' he says. ``You get to think about how you're going to build it and where you're going to put it. We learn how to put things in space and make them blend in.''
And that is, Strahan and others say, the heart of the program: lessons about where people live and why.
``The bottom line is not just to have children be more aware of buildings,'' says Sandler. ``It's to teach them that we all have a collective role in the creation of our environment.''
Adds Mr. Wilkes, the San Diego architect: ``They'll build the next cities.''