The Columbia Heights tutoring center that features dinosaur bones and unicorn tears and its own cave is closing at the end of the summer.
But don’t fear, 826DC is not going far. The center is reopening in a larger space across the street — and it’s planning to keep growing so it can serve more students in the District.
Gone, though, will be the “Museum of Unnatural History” that has enticed kids into the center for the past five years, promising more than homework help. The new space will have a new theme that the organization has yet to unveil.
Joe Callahan, executive director of 826DC, said he hopes to find something with the same whimsical appeal. “We want to get kids into a creative mindset,” he said.
In the five years since the writing center opened, it has grown steadily. During the past school year, 826DC reached nearly 4,400 students through its after-school tutoring and writing workshops and classes, up from about 1,200 in the 2010-2011 school year. Next year, it aims to serve more than 5,000 students.
With three new full-time staff members coming on board, the current storefront is pushing capacity.
The new space is in the former mezzanine of the historic Tivoli Theatre. The street-level entrance leads to a marble staircase. Murals visible through office windows and crown molding suggest a 1920’s-era grandeur.
Callahan said he looked at 277 office spaces in a year and a half before the space became available.
826DC operates a range of programs. Its after-school tutoring draws in as many as 40 students a day. The organization also hosts field trips, where schoolchildren can create their own books.
One morning this week, second-graders from Noyes Education Campus sat cross-legged on an oriental rug writing a story together. The children had decided on main characters — “DJ” and “Diamond” -- both lions -- and they needed a setting.
“Think of a land that is completely made-up,” said Kevin Seefried, a writer and part-time staff member. A professional illustrator was also on hand.
The students started brainstorming: “A Monster Land,” “A Spy Land,” “A Money Land.” After a vote, they finally settled on “Sweet Chocolate Candy Land”
By the end of the two-hour trip, they would bring home copies of illustrated books they wrote together.
The programs are modeled after 826 Valencia Street — named for the address of the first center in San Francisco’s Mission District that was co-founded by author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegaril. Now, seven cities have similar programs.
Workshops and projects pair professional writers with teachers and students in schools. For one project at the District’s Woodrow Wilson High School this year, 96 writers worked with as many students to provide weekly feedback on novels the students were writing.
A food-writing class at Capital City Public Charter School led to a book of recipes and stories written by students. And students at SEED Public Charter School worked with volunteer writers to study short-story telling and to write and publish their own book of stories. Jill Biden hosted their book release party at the vice president’s house.
“Every teen writes,” Callahan said. “If they really have a desire to have their voice heard, we will treat them like professionals.”
By promising a quality product in the end, he said, they become more invested in the process. “They want to rewrite and to edit. They become more interested in writing,” he said.