A place of one's own

9th September 2011 at 01:00
A grassroots approach to education that nurtures care for the community is fast taking hold in the US. It has achieved major successes, especially in deprived communities, and may be ideally suited to complement Curriculum for Excellence

When American high school principal Tom Horn first visited one of the trailer parks where his pupils lived, the people would come out with guns. Nowadays they wave at him.

Education gives kids the creative energy to change the world, according to Mr Horn, principal of Kennedy High School for Sustainability in Cottage Grove, Oregon. Scottish ecologist Becs Boyd visited his school to find out more, as part of a study on place-based education. It was in one of six school districts she visited on a Churchill Travelling Fellowship last year, and her report describes how the failing school was turned around in two years.

Dr Boyd believes the ethos behind place and community-based education is ideally suited to complement Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland, and she is eager to share her findings and enthusiasm with Scottish teachers.

Her report, "Growing Kids Who Care - Connecting School, Place and Planet" and subtitled "Sowing the seeds of place and community-based education in Scotland", has just been published. It reveals remarkable stories of American schools where children's lives have been transformed by resolving problems in their communities and learning to care about where they live.

When Dr Boyd went to meet Mr Horn, he had been heading up the school for 15 to 18-year-olds for just two years.

"This was a school for struggling teenagers who really weren't managing at all in the American mainstream system. It was a drop-out school where there was about 23 per cent attendance and terrible drug problems - I think there had been a couple of suicides," says Dr Boyd, who is now back home in Scotland.

"The children came from the most appalling trailer parks in the whole of Oregon - some of the most disadvantaged children that you could come across in Oregon."

When Mr Horn took the job of principal and went to the trailer parks, the reason people came out with guns was that they were suspicious of authority. Now they wave to him as he cycles past and his next big project is to put a community garden right at the heart of Saginaw trailer park, which is one of the poorest, she says.

Dr Boyd's report shows why people finally started to wave to Mr Horn: "Vital to this success is the school culture of care and respect. Horn has forged caring relationships with students and their families. Teachers teach the same class for a whole trimester to allow for relationship- building.

"Classes often begin and end with circle time, showing appreciation for others. It is clear that the caring ethos within the school engenders care for the wider community and the wider world."

Activities at the school are based around five themes of sustainability - agriculture, architecture, energy, forests and water - and within each area there is a focus on practical problem-solving, academic skills and creating jobs for the future.

Teenagers grow food for their community, have learnt bee-keeping and why it's vital for world food supplies, and have worked with an architect to design affordable, energy-efficient, modular homes to replace their poorest trailers. They hope to build prototypes as a business venture.

Students are also involved in conservation and pass on what they've learnt across the curriculum, teaching younger children at elementary schools. The school's project-based, problem-solving approach has encouraged partnerships with local agencies and businesses, helping fund school work.

In 2009-10, the school attracted around $700,000 (pound;432,000) to support projects and help provide jobs for pupils. As 17-year-old student Morgan puts it: "I've been to all kinds of schools and this is the best school I've been to. It's cool because you get to go out and do lots of great things, like growing stuff in the garden, forestry work, conservation. It changes the way you see things. There's a lot more respect here, too, between us and the teachers."

Children skip school less now - attendance is up from 23 per cent to 91 per cent. Their work is better, too. Five years ago, fewer than 5 per cent of Kennedy students met or exceeded writing standards. Last year, that figure had risen to 33 per cent. In maths, over a similar period the number of pupils meeting standards rose from 5 per cent to 19 per cent.

Dr Boyd describes place-based learning as a rapidly-growing grassroots movement, nurturing care and responsibility for the local environment, the community and the wider world. She highlights how teachers found that giving students of any age the chance to make a difference to "their place" empowered them and strengthened their connections to that community - whether it was their school or the wider environment.

In another case study at Sunnyside Environmental School in Portland, Dr Boyd again met children with a strong sense of the social issues in their community.

"The children had seen homeless people around their area and they decided they were going to help them directly," she says. "So they did a whole range of things, from fundraising to helping to build homeless shelters."

Everywhere she visited, she identified two key strands - a caring culture emanating from schools into their communities, and an ethos of sustainability where children were learning to live well and make good choices.

In an Oregon dairy-farming area, the six schools in Tillamook School District gained an international reputation for their "Citizen Science" projects. Dr Boyd went to meet some of the staff and students.

At Tillamook High, she heard how a group of teachers based teaching and learning on solving problems in their local community. Trouble-shooting with local businesses, students discovered issues of concern and worked to resolve them.

Tillamook Creamery supplies cheese throughout the US and was losing money producing waste whey. High-school student and dairy farmer's son Hayden Bush began extracting bio-ethanol from the waste whey, and then formed a business partnership with the dairy. The teenager then extracted bio- diesel from invasive Scotch Broom, helping farmers like his dad who were facing high fuel prices.

"Businesses were admiring the Citizen Science work so much that they would actually approach the school with a problem and ask the seniors to tackle it," says Dr Boyd.

Academic achievement has improved here and teenagers with no thoughts of further education, like "citizen scientist" Hayden Bush, are changing their plans.

"In 2010 alone, Tillamook High School students won $230,000 worth of student scholarships to continue with their education and presented their work at international sustainability conferences," says Hayden.

Older children at Tillamook visit local elementary schools, teaching what they've been studying in science and reinforcing their own learning.

The Churchill Fellowship also took Dr Boyd to Arizona's STAR School, the biggest Native American Reservation in the US, set in 26,000 miles of desert. This charter school is off-grid and solar-powered, with 130 pupils aged 4-14, mainly from the Navajo Nation. The school is founded on sustainability and the Navajo principle of K'e - that all things are inextricably linked.

Pupils do home repairs for elders in their community and visit them in nursing homes - an initiative which won the school a Governor's Service Award in 2007.

The curriculum focuses on the four Rs - respect, relationship, responsibility and reasoning - and children learn about Navajo culture and values, which aren't covered by mainstream education. Here, Dr Boyd found strong similarities with Scotland's Gaelic-speaking communities, marginalised in the past and determined to give their children awareness and pride in their own culture.

For schools interested in place-based learning, Tom Horn developed a first-steps programme. He suggests choosing an achievable project that will have tangible community benefits and dividing it into academic subjects and phases. This helps make it clear which academic areas will be addressed when.

The caring culture starts at the top, with the principal taking a teaching role to free other staff for preparation. Classes should have one dedicated teacher, if possible, to help cement relationships, with each day starting and ending with circle time so that everyone can show appreciation and share their hopes.

For Dr Boyd, these outward-looking schools are fulfilling many of the objectives of Curriculum for Excellence. "One of the strengths of this place-based education is that it really nurtures this feeling of belonging - not just to oneself, but to one's community, and having a responsibility towards that community and a responsibility to make it better. It's not just `I'm all right, Jack'."

Further information and a copy of the report at: http:pbechurchillfellowship.blogspot.com



When Becs Boyd (pictured) filled out the form for a Churchill Travelling Fellowship, close encounters with wolves and grizzly bears were not high priorities. But the trip turned into a big adventure for Becs, her husband Tom and their two young children. They travelled into some of the most remote parts of Canada and the US and worked on organic farms during a year-long journey.

An ecologist based on the Black Isle, Dr Boyd formerly worked with Scottish Natural Heritage, WWF Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, on environmental policy. Her work had involved school-based projects and she had developed a keen interest in environmental education's role in encouraging children to care for their surroundings.

She first heard about place-based learning from Jonathan Sher at Children in Scotland, who helped with contacts for her fellowship, and soon realised this was the kind of education she wanted for her own children.

Her husband Tom took a break from his role as Highland's reporter for the Scottish Children's Hearing Administration and, in March last year, they left Scotland with their daughter Freya, then five, and son Kai, 3.

"We set off (in the US) in our battered Toyota Corolla, which we bought in San Francisco when we arrived," says Dr Boyd, now living just north of Inverness.

They spent six weeks at each farm placement, hiking for up to a month between jobs. "We had amazing experiences. We had eight grizzly bears within half-a-mile of our wee cabin in a remote valley, where we were working for a homestead couple in British Columbia," she says. When faced with the grizzly situation, she says they "just tried to keep out of their way".

Freya and Kai thrived in the wilderness, exploring and inventing their own games, developing vivid imaginations and a strong sense of independence and direction.

"We really felt our family experience and my experience with the various schools that we visited were very much inter-linked," says Dr Boyd.

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