Integrating a Museum into the Public School System – American Alliance of Museums

Second-grade students from Matheny-Withrow Elementary School and their teacher, Mrs. Pride-Boatman, wear anatomy aprons as they learn about the human body during their STEAM residency program at Kidzeum.  Photo courtesy of Kidzeum

Second-grade students from Matheny-Withrow Elementary School and their teacher, Mrs. Pride-Boatman, wear anatomy aprons as they learn about the human body during their STEAM residency program at Kidzeum. Photo courtesy of Kidzeum

The pandemic has been an economic tsunami for museums, especially those already struggling financially. Relatively new museums, which had not yet managed to establish themselves, were particularly at risk. Today on the blog, Karen Ackerman Witter and Leah Wilson tell us how the Kidzeum, in Springfield, Illinois, looked at the museum’s role as a critical community asset in navigating its path to financial recovery. . Leah was hired as Kidzeum’s first executive director a few months before the official opening in 2018. Karen joined the board in December 2018 and a year later became chair of the board.

–Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President of Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums


In July 2018, after more than a decade in development, Kidzeum opened its doors in downtown Springfield with a mission to create playful learning and discovery experiences for children of all backgrounds and abilities. The new organization proved popular with families with young children, but as a small start-up nonprofit museum with no government support, we struggled financially. When they were forced to close our doors due to the pandemic in March 2020, we had no income, no reserves and no endowment. Funding from the Federal Paycheck Protection Program supported the staff for a short time, but in July 2020 the staff was reduced to just the Executive Director (Leah), who eventually went part-time. We had worked hard to develop a sustainable business model before the pandemic and reconstituted our board of directors, but within months of the pandemic, bankruptcy became a real possibility.

To meet this challenge, we successfully applied for COVID relief funding and used the time provided by this funding to explore a partnership with our local school system. (Kidzeum received federal PPP funding, an SBA loan, and a state business interruption grant.) We believed Kidzeum was an underutilized community asset and that we could build a successful business model around the value of this asset. Leah had visited many successful museum schools across the country and offered a similar partnership in Springfield. An AAM article about a successful role model in the UK (My Primary School is in the Museum) also inspired her to contact Jennifer Gill, superintendent of our local school district.

Gill had already been committed to improving science test scores for elementary school students, which made her very interested in partnering with Kidzeum. She saw this as an innovative way to improve science education in the early primary grades and to build on existing partnerships to improve STEM education at the middle and high school levels. The Kidzeum proposed to establish a school-museum, but Springfield already has a very successful and popular charter school, a magnet school, and a gifted school. From the outset, Gill insisted on not creating another new program that would alienate some students from other existing elementary schools. She insisted that every student in the targeted class should have the opportunity to participate, not just a subset of the population.

In response, Leah pitched the concept of a STEAM residency program in which each second-grade class would spend two weeks at the Kidzeum for an immersive program, using the museum’s space and teaching resources. Gill welcomed this proposal enthusiastically and made it a priority. His leadership was essential in gaining commitment and buy-in from teachers and administrators. Even in the face of the day-to-day crises and pressures of the pandemic, she remained committed to the longer-term goals of improving primary science education. With support from the school district, Kidzeum applied for and received an Inspire grant of nearly $50,000 from the Institute of Museum of Library Services to begin work. The IMLS grant helped fund one full-time and several part-time educational staff, materials, and program evaluation. An additional $65,000 was raised through other local grants and donations that helped pay for administrative and program costs.

Museum staff worked with second-grade teachers and school district curriculum specialists and administrators over the summer of 2021 to develop the program, and the program launched in November. For children participating in the immersion program, a typical day begins with a regular bus ride to their home school, and from there they are taken by bus to the Kidzeum for their school day. After they arrive, each public school teacher takes their class to a designated classroom in the museum. The program takes material they would teach in their home classroom in Kidzeum exhibits and augments learning with museum content. Museum staff offer STEAM-based learning sessions that include coding with Unruly Splats (obtained through a KiDs grant that Karen was able to secure through the Kappa Delta Sorority Foundation), 3D printing (using 3D printer donated by a local Rotarian who owns an electronics recycling center company) and the creation of STEAM exhibits on topics such as pollinators, solar energy and the human body. About 1000 students will follow the program by the end of 2022.

Second grade student from Butler Elementary School engaged in a Kidzeum scavenger hunt as part of the STEAM residency program, December 2021. Photo by Kari Bedford.

The school district pays Kidzeum a fee for each participating student and also supports program development and teacher compensation for additional time spent outside of school. The district also pays for transportation costs, lunches and the daily presence of administrative staff on site to ensure the smooth running of the program. Under this new model, the museum is closed to the public during the week, when we operate as a school. The business model supports our ability to serve the public as a traditional children’s museum on weekends, holidays, summer and school vacations.

We’ve come a long way since facing potential bankruptcy. We have rebuilt our staff to about three-quarters of our pre-pandemic workforce. While there are still uncertainties, this Kidzeum/school district partnership has the potential to be a game-changer. Businesses, state and local elected officials, and community members are excited about this partnership, resulting in increased opportunities for grants, donations, and corporate support.

The Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln led a community vision project for Springfield and released a report last April titled Next 10. Reimagining the Kidzeum was identified as a “promising idea” tied to one of the Next 10 priorities – characterized as “an essential component of the educational infrastructure. We are extremely proud of how Kidzeum has worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to not only survive, but also to have a meaningful impact on our community. Kidzeum’s board and staff are committed to moving forward full steam ahead.

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About the authors

Karen AckermanWitter served as Chair of the Kidzeum Board of Trustees from January 2020 to June 2021. She was recruited to join the Board of Trustees in December 2018 after serving as Associate Director of the Illinois State Museum for 14 years. She retired from Illinois State after 35 years of working in leadership positions. She is now a freelance writer, active community volunteer and part-time museum consultant. She served on the boards of the Association of Midwest Museums and the Illinois Association of Museums for many years and was active in the advocacy initiatives of the American Alliance of Museums. Contact her at [email protected]

Lea Wilson has over 15 years of non-profit experience, the majority having spent working for museums. She is currently the executive director of Kidzeum of Health and Science in Springfield, Illinois. She was previously Vice President of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She holds a BA in Geography from the University of Northern Iowa and an MA in Geography from the University of Iowa. Contact her at [email protected]