Rapp students: Back to school at Scrabble?

Curriculum changes are afoot at Rappahannock County Public Schools. After the high school already committed to a pilot program of service learning (a new elective designed to actively involve RCHS in community service) the elementary school is eyeing a substantial modification to its black history curriculum: a partnership with Scrabble School.

The idea surfaced at January’s school board meeting, when the board heard a report from Bob Lander, a longtime supporter of the Scrabble School Preservation Foundation, a group dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the school, which nowadays also serves as the Rappahannock Senior Center four days a week.

Scrabble School is a Rosenwald school, Lander said, one of approximately 5,000 such schools set up around the country at the start of the 20th century for the education of African-Americans. They are named after Julius Rosenwald, an American clothier who provided funds for many of the schools.

Lander, who has been involved with the school for 10 years, said the two-room schoolhouse was founded in 1922 and operated until 1968, when it was declared “inadequate” by the county and closed down. That year was also the first year white students attended classes at Scrabble.

Over the years, Lander said, the school fell into disrepair as its significance was forgotten. After an architect from the University of Virginia declared the building “not a ruin,” restoration immediately began, and the school was reborn in 2009 as both a senior center and the Rappahannock African-American Heritage Center.

Lander said that the purpose of the new heritage center is to provide visitors with the school’s story during its segregated years and, ideally, to “tell kids today what it was like back then.” To that end, the school is currently in the process of tracking down alumni and asking them to share their experiences.

Lander’s idea is a modification to the black history section of the school’s curriculum. The school would develop lesson plans from kindergarten to fourth grade (and eventually fifth- and sixth-graders as well) that detailed the school’s history in ways they would understand. The school would also conduct tours for the students, providing a visual as well as written illustration of the past.

“Our goal is to enhance what you’re already doing [with your curriculum],” Lander told the school board.

“The goal is bring that period – the ’30s to ’60s – to life,” said RCPS instructional coordinator Shannon Grimsley. “There’s obviously a rich history of that in Rappahannock. And they [Scrabble] have already done all the work [on the course].”

Grimsley noted that Scrabble School already has an “incredible” website (scrabbleschool.org), which features audio interviews from former students and extensive details on the school’s history, and has purchased books and other resources to use with the class.

That class, Grimsley said, is being designed to supplement the Standards of Learning (SOLs) and, at least at first, primarily for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The current plan is to take two field trips to the school: one at the beginning of the course and one at the end, “to help wrap things up.”

Though the details are still being worked out, each trip would likely feature a tour as well as perhaps a guest speaker or a historical actor.

“One of the nice things is they start with the macro, like Jim Crow laws, and then delve into more specifics,” Grimsley said. “They get people who actually lived through it and ask them, ‘How’d this affect you?’ . . . It helps make it real.”

When prompted about the cost of such a program, Lander told the board that an anonymous donor had provided the funds for the first three years of the program.

“It won’t cost the school a thing,” Lander said. “And our hope is that it’ll be easy for us to get grants [to continue the program] in the future.” Lander added that the foundation planned to open the program up to a wider, regional, audience after establishing itself among Rappahannock County students.

Grimsley said the initial idea for the program started several years back with former RCHS teacher Jan McKinney, who helped procure some of Scrabble’s early interviews with former students.

“We’re starting small due to the funding,” said Grimsley, “but there’s room for expansion.”

Though any changes to the curriculum have to be approved by the school board, Grimsley said she suspects, because of all the time saved by Scrabble’s course material development, the matter will go before the school board for final approval in March.

If it is approved at that time, she said, the program could be in place by September.