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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.

An amazing transformation has happened at Crellin over the past eight years. This is school change at its best. And yet Crellin’s principal, staff, students, and community have been swimming upstream against the dominant No Child Left Behind (NCLB) paradigm of direct instruction, time on task, and “drill, baby, drill” as the only ways to increase academic achievement. To be sure, Crellin students and teachers are under the same pressure to increase test scores and meet Adequate Yearly Progress. But they’ve done it through adopting a place-based education paradigm that reaches far beyond the narrow scope of just raising test scores.

Place-based education proponents have different assumptions about the nature of human learning and school improvement. Rather than assuming that learners are motivated by external controls like testing, teachers focus on engaging students with the real nearby world and aspire to lighting the flame of curiosity. Teachers offer students purposeful activity, social membership, and opportunities to develop competence. The nearby neighborhood and social community become the classroom and source of curricular challenges. Often, all it takes is one compelling project for a school to get started (see sidebar "Characteristics of Place-Based Education") Characteristics of Place-Based Education

• Engages students in rigorous work that develops academic skills
• Ensures the development of civic engagement skills in students and teachers
• Engages parents, community members, and businesses in the life of the school
• Designs programs that engage students in solving community problems and improves the quality of life and the environment

“Why Is That Water Orange?”

At the dawn of the 21st century, Crellin was a tough little school. Test scores were below the state average, and if there was a fight at the regional high school, it was often the kids who had come from Crellin who were involved. “When I became principal, lots of people said to me, ‘You don’t want to send your own kids there,’ ” McCauley recalls. “But I had to, and having my kids here helped me connect with the parents and community.” There wasn’t a lot of hope at Crellin. But with shifts in attitude and in pedagogical approach, the school started to change.

Crellin Elementary’s exploration began at an academic summer camp during the summer of 2003. This camp was designed to focus on science standards and content that emerged from the school yard and the community’s natural environment. During a walk behind the school, students discovered tinted water seeping into nearby Snowy Creek, and one asked, “Why is that water orange?” Taking the question seriously, teacher Rebecca Sanders went to the principal, who then sought help from the Department of Natural Resources and the Canaan Valley Institute, a regional science center located in nearby Davis, W.Va.

They discovered that the six acres between the school and the creek had been a coal tailings dump during the early 20th century and that the orange water was acid mine drainage—water that was absorbing acids from the coal waste that was then polluting Snowy Creek. The Crellin staff realized that something needed to be done and that the doing could possibly make for valuable curriculum.

That initial question reverberated throughout the community, county, and state as residents, volunteers, and agencies got on board and garnered over $150,000 in funds and more than 1,000 volunteer hours to do much more than abate the acid mine drainage that was flowing into Snowy Creek. The Corps, as it became known, was an association of students, teachers, community members, nonprofits, and state and federal agencies committed to protecting the natural resources of Crellin and to engaging students in meaningful learning opportunities.

This springboard event started the school on its path to innovative and engaging curriculum. The restoration of the coal tailings dump turned into an opportunity to create an Environmental Education Laboratory, complete with a marshlands boardwalk, an outdoor classroom amphitheater, and improved access to the creek for water quality studies. With support from Canaan Valley Institute and other community organizations, the staff followed this project with an oral history project that led to the creation of a history-themed playground that parents helped build. More recent projects have included a Bird and Butterfly Attractant Garden and a project to help preserve American Chestnut trees. Dr. Pope, a retired physician and ornithologist, helped create a bird research sanctuary just outside the windows of the fifth-grade classroom.

In this same classroom, the teachers and students raise trout in a large, refrigerated tank. Students get to participate in the stocking as well. During one of the past stockings, the Department of Natural Resources’ Western Region Fisheries manager Alan Klotz commented: “This was the happiest fish stocking I’ve ever witnessed. The children have been studying the environment for months and have been involved in the site reclamation from the beginning by picking up garbage when the project started, right up to today’s stocking. Now they’re actually getting some hands-on experience with restoring the stream, and they’re very excited.”

This is school change as it should be. Children engaged in rigorous curriculum based on real environmental and community challenges. Teachers working hand-in-hand with local scientists and historians. Parents volunteering after school, during school vacations, and on weekends to bring students to conferences, work on school projects, and restore the creek. In the process, they’re not just preparing for the state tests; they’re discovering the history of the area, improving the quality of life in the community, and learning the benefits of civic engagement. “We have really opened up the school and taken the walls down so the whole community becomes the school,” says McCauley.
On the Right Page
What’s the moral of this story? This excerpt from a June 22, 2010, Baltimore Sun article says it all: “Of the 874 elementary schools in the state, Crellin Elementary, a schoolhouse nestled in a coal mining area that has amassed a collection of prizes for leadership, environmental teaching, and character education, is the school with the highest pass rate on the Maryland School Assessment.”

It’s not surprising if you look at the changes in the test scores over the past eight years. Since 2003, when McCauley became principal, there’s been a gradual decrease in the percentage of children scoring at the basic level and a gradual increase in the percentage of children scoring at the proficient or advanced level. Keep in mind that these are, for the most part, economically disadvantaged students, and there’s the usual number of special-needs students in the school. This community is not exceptional in any demographic way. What is exceptional is the comprehensiveness of the place-based pedagogical approach and a principal and teachers who believe that authentic, engaging curriculum is the key to school success. “Drill, baby, drill” might be a good mantra for offshore oil enthusiasts, but it’s an impoverished mind-set for good school reform.

We’ve been seeing this same improvement pattern emerge over the last decade in schools that have adopted a range of place-based approaches:

  • At Antioch University New England, my colleagues and I worked with the Beebe Environmental and Health Sciences Magnet School in Malden, Mass., for five years providing extensive professional development and training in place-based education pedagogy. Over the course of those five years, we found steady increases in science and math test scores as a result of the changes in instruction. The changes were significantly greater than at other magnet schools in this inner-city urban school district.
  • Expeditionary Learning Schools have had similar results in many of the more than 160 schools they work with around the country, many in inner-city school districts.
  • A five-year longitudinal study of 77 demographically paired schools in Washington state—with one school in each pair systemically integrating environmental education (EE) across the curriculum and the other school in each pair not—showed that EE schools consistently had higher test scores.
Principals and school board members often say to us, “Yes, this integrated curriculum and place-based education approach looks like fun, but we just can’t waste our time on that, we’ve got to meet Adequate Yearly Progress.”

We reply, “Well, if you’re serious about meeting Adequate Yearly Progress, and you want to raise test scores while also educating the whole child, encouraging civic engagement, and making the world a better place, you should consider implementing place-based education.”

But the direct instruction/time on task paradigm is a powerful one, difficult to dislodge, and it sometimes yields modest, satisfactory results. But at what cost? At the cost of turning many students and teachers off to education. At the cost of sacrificing the opportunity to turn schools into, as John Dewey said, “laboratories for democracy.” Under NCLB, test scores inch up, but boredom reigns: more than half of American students find school meaningless.

What Other Community Would Do That?
I’m in Rebecca Sanders’s classroom in Crellin with McCauley. Rebecca is peeling back the sheets that keep the trout aquarium dark and cool so we can see the fry. She starts to recall a winter storm story.
“Remember that night that the power went out and we’d only had the trout fry for a couple of weeks? Without the power, the aerator and the chiller wouldn’t work. We were concerned the trout would die and the students would be heartbroken. We called up Dave Browning, a county maintenance worker, and got him to bring over a generator so we could keep the aerator going. We were joined by J.R., a parent, and his daughters, who had called Dana and rushed to the school to check the fish. But we were still concerned about the water temperature—it needs to stay between 50 and 54 degrees. So Dana and I slept on two cots, sharing one blanket between us. We almost froze to death ourselves. But we kept those fish alive. What other principal would do that?”

What other principal, or teacher, indeed? But the truth is that at Crellin they’ve “taken down the walls of the school, so the community has become the school.” The more appropriate question might be, “What other community would do that?” Crellin is a story about how a principal and teachers have learned how to engage the Canaan Valley Institute, parents, the Department of Natural Resources, various local colleges, the Youghiogheny River Watershed Association, the historical society, and the Girl Scouts in improving their school. Let’s change the paradigm so that it’s acceptable for schools to swim against the NCLB current in working out viable, place-based approaches to school improvement in their communities.

David Sobel is director of Teacher Certification Programs at Antioch University New England, Keene, N.H. He is the coauthor of Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools (Routledge, 2010) and numerous other books.

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