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Volume 27, Number 5
September/October 2011

When the Community Becomes the Classroom

Changing the school improvement paradigm with place-based education


Crellin Elementary School in Oakland, Md., sits hard by the West Virginia border. It’s a former coal-mining community with an abandoned rail line running through the middle of it. The small school serves about 100 students, 87 percent on free or reduced-price lunch. The parents are coal miners, truck drivers, farmers, tradesmen.

Dana McCauley, Crellin’s teaching principal, is driving me through the school’s immediate neighborhood. The neglected Community Building has a section of collapsed roof, rotten stairs, peeling shingles. The houses have flaking paint, missing trim boards, broken windows. “One of the students lives in that trailer back there,” she points. The yard is scattered with broken toys, car parts, an old refrigerator, a wind-tossed tarp, moldering insulation. Drug and alcohol abuse are problems for some local families. It fulfills all the stereotypes of a hard-luck Appalachian community.

Which makes the story of this school so much more provocative. The 50-year-old school building, low-slung and hunkered down only a stone’s throw from the abandoned Community Building, is tidy, well-kept, and welcoming. It’s the new center of the community. Inside, the bulletin boards bristle with pictures of smiling children on a sledding trip to their bus driver’s farm, historic photos of the sawmill that used to occupy the school site, student-designed brochures about the endangered American Chestnut tree, a healthy snacks project, and a map of the Environmental Education Laboratory.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


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