After months of fundraising, planning, and preparation, the 21st Century Charter School @ Gary 8th graders filed out of the Cafeteria and onto a waiting charter bus on the night of Easter Sunday.  It was a 13-hour trip to Washington, D.C., but most slept through the night, propped up against windows by rolled-up sweatshirts or the pillows that some had the foresight to bring along, lulled by the purring diesel engine, insulated from the Midwestern storm that followed us through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.  As the students, teachers, and parent chaperones woke up to drive through the beautiful rolling grassy hills of the Pennsylvania countryside, tour guide Ms. Koekenberg led the first lesson of the trip on the architecture of the nation’s Capitol.


Day 1

Deterred only slightly by the morning rush hour traffic clogging the periphery of downtown Washington D.C., the group arrived at their first stop – the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  Here, they were treated to a behind-the-scenes investigative workshop about scientific research and museum curatorial methods, and had the chance to explore the Museum’s vast collection, including many geological, biological, and anthropological exhibits, and the famous Hope Diamond.  After lunch at the Museum, they enjoyed a sunny springtime stroll to the Washington Monument lawn, where students completed a reflective journal assignment in anticipation of their next stop: the Holocaust Museum.  By this time, the 8th graders from Pikes Peak Prep (the school administered by GEO Foundation in Colorado Springs, CO) had met the 8th graders from Gary, IN at the Holocaust Museum.  After experiencing the Holocaust Museum, the group took advantage of D.C.’s underground train public transit system to grab some dinner at Union Station, a transportation hub of the city.  For many students, it was the first time riding on the metro.  At sundown, the group embarked on a nighttime walking tour and scavenger hunt of some of Washington D.C.’s most notable monuments, including the Washington Monument, the World War II Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial.  After a packed day, they checked into a hotel in Alexandria, VA to get some rest before hitting the ground running again on Tuesday.

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Day 2

The day started at the beautiful Arlington National Cemetery, where the group visited prominent sites like the Kennedy graves, and witnessed the ceremonial Changing of the Guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  After a tranquil morning, they ventured into the heart of the city for lunch, and visited the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon.  Students were assigned to journal at the Memorial, comparing the tragic events of 9/11 to those of the Holocaust, building on the in-depth knowledge we had obtained the day before at the Holocaust Museum.  

The next planned stop was the National Portrait Gallery, where the group was joined by the President and CEO of GEO Foundation, Kevin Teasley! A large section of downtown D.C. was affected by a power outage, so when the group found a crowd seated on the steps outside of the temporarily closed National Portrait Gallery, Mr. Teasley suggested that they take a walk down the street to the White House.  It’s a good thing they did, because in addition to seeing the beautiful home of our President, they did some star-spotting: Oliver Stone was shooting a movie scene, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley.  After some fans in the group had contented themselves with much picture-taking and shrieking, they got some delicious tacos for dinner, before heading back to the now-open National Portrait Gallery.  Teachers led history and art lessons as students made their way through the chambers holding portraits of each US President.  Afterwards, the group walked around the corner to Ford’s Theatre, where they had the chance to explore the venue’s museum devoted to the life and career of Abraham Lincoln, before seeing the fantastic “Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War”, a musical depicting the events of the Civil War and the Abolition of slavery.

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Day 3

The group was welcomed early in the morning at Howard University, where the Admissions Office imparted some valuable information to 8th graders on what it takes to get into Howard.  The Admissions Outreach Coordinator advised, “It’s not all about grades.  Yes, you need the GPA, the SAT, the extra-curricular, and the essay.  But there’s another component – the recommendation letter.  You need to ask a teacher and your guidance counselor to write you letters of recommendation, and trust me – I’ve seen good ones, and I’ve seen bad ones.  So make sure you maintain that good behavior!” After racing through the Admissions Office’s fun scavenger hunt, the group experienced the happenstance of meeting a Howard Alumnus and Army Officer, Mr. Lyons, who spoke to the 8th graders about the importance of investing in their futures.  “What this country needs are people invested in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  I know those classes are hard, but work at them, because there are jobs that will open up to you.”

After an educational start to the day, the group navigated the way downtown to the steps of the Capitol building, where students had the chance to meet with representatives from the offices of their Congressional districts – Pete Visclosky in Gary, IN and Doug Lamborn in Colorado Springs, CO – before experiencing a guided tour of the Capitol building.  Then, they headed to the Smithsonian Museum of American History for lunch, and to investigate further into the history of our nation.

The group returned to the hotel for a pizza dinner and surprise birthday party for PPP 8th grader Nathan, and 21c 8th graders Valinda, Keshawn, and School Principal Chris Evans! After the party, 21c High School teacher Mr. Velasco led a legislative lesson on how Congress passes a bill, using the models of two bills recently passed by Congress that affected Colorado Springs, CO and Gary, IN.

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Day 4

The final day of the trip was overcast and misty, perhaps making it easier to travel back 200 years at George Washington’s historically preserved Estate at Mt. Vernon, where the group explored the grounds, visited memorials and gravestones, and took a tour of George Washington’s Mansion.  In the afternoon, all paid a visit to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, before Pikes Peak Prep departed to make their flight back to Colorado.  21c continued on to Union Station for dinner via metro (all were seasoned pros at navigating public transit this time around), and made their way to the final destination in DC, the International Spy Museum.  Here, the group participated in a fascinating workshop on the Cuban Missile Crisis, where students role-played as the CIA to determine the threat level of potential militants in Cuba.  After enjoying the Museum, 21c boarded the charter bus for the return trip back to Gary, exhausted and extremely educated!

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