Tucked into the southwest corner of the Navajo Nation, Arizona’s STAR School is a charter school that knows its place—literally. The school is completely “off the grid,” powered by solar panels and wind generators. There’s a campus greenhouse that provides students with locally grown vegetables and the opportunity to garden. The curriculum, designed to serve the school’s exclusively Native population, emphasizes Navajo language and culture as much as it does the Common Core standards.
STAR is a proponent of place-based education (PBE), a philosophy that aims to immerse students in the local history, culture and ecology of the area they live and learn in, using these as the foundation for academic study. Schools that practice PBE view the community as an extension of the classroom rather than a separate entity. At STAR, PBE is apparent in every aspect of the school, from the food served to the community-based service projects students design and complete every year.
Place-based education may seem especially well-suited to a school like STAR, where the student body is uniquely tied to the land and local culture. But across the country, schools of all kinds have been adopting the model to improve student engagement and, by extension, student success. EdSurge took a look at how STAR is making the model work—and what other schools can learn from their example.
Why place-based education?
Placed-based learning, although perhaps the oldest form of education, has been gaining attention in recent years, perhaps in response to the expansion of classroom technology. Nate McClennen, Vice President of Education at Wyoming’s Teton Science Schools, hopes to accelerate the movement. His team works with schools like STAR to provide rigorous, place-based curriculum, focusing on small, rural districts. According to McClennen, the PBE model has three primary benefits: to increase student engagement, improve academic achievement, and positively impact the community.
A growing body of research supports McClennen’s claims. The Place-Based Education Evaluation Collaborative (PEEC) has spent the last 15 years partnering with hundreds of schools—both urban and rural—to prove the benefits of PBE for children. Its studies are based on hundreds of interviews and thousands of surveys with students and educators across 12 states. PEEC’s research reveals that place-based learning “boosts student achievement, improves environmental, social, and economic vitality, and fosters students’ connection to community.”
PBE inside and outside of the classroom
For Jamie Paul, a Kindergarten teacher at STAR, those benefits are hard to quantify, but easy to see. Paul’s class frequently spends time learning in nature, taking field trips to the nearby Grand Canyon, learning Navajo songs and identifying local flora. She explains that PBE is what allows her students to get excited about what they’re learning. While academics remain at the forefront in her classroom, place-based lessons create engagement. Paul explains that for a kindergartener, "just learning the word ‘the’ and then seeing it in a book is exciting. So, you can just imagine how engaged kids are if they read a story about a character who lives in a hogan and they’re like, ‘My grandma lives in a hogan!’" For her, it's that connection that keeps them reading.
Mark Sorensen, co-founder of STAR, says the school’s middle school students have found the model similarly engaging. Every year students choose a local issue to investigate and present on, with a required service component. Sorensen recalls a student who researched the prevalence of drunk driving on the reservation after her father was killed in a driving accident: “She wrote a speech on the topic, and presented it not only to the school, but at the trial of the convicted offender. It was incredibly powerful.”
The student went on to become a participant in Mothers Against Drunk Driving, raising awareness about the prevalence of drinking throughout her community. According to Sorensen, because the project was tied to something local and deeply personal, “it helped [the student] find her voice.”
Grounded in place, moving towards the future
Skeptics of PBE may raise questions around how pragmatic the model is in the 21st century, as schools move towards online, personalized learning. Can students benefit from gardening when the workplace is becoming increasingly digitalized? Many place-based educators insist technology and a PBE curriculum can, and often should, go hand-in-hand.
At STAR school, capstone projects have shifted from traditional oral presentations to digital videos that students upload online to share with a wider audience; younger students learn to read on solar-powered laptops with the online reading program i-Ready.
In Jamie Paul’s Montessori-style class, kids always have the choice to work on computers during free time. For Paul, although the school is rooted in history, there’s a decidedly “pro-technology” feel. She knows the skills students learn through PBE—social-emotional skills, creativity, empathy—are the ones adults need to succeed in the 21st century workplace, but she also wants to help them build digital fluency.
Sorensen is similarly optimistic about PBE’s potential to work in harmony with technology. To him, what matters most is the intention. At STAR, he says, "it’s not about the tech itself. It’s about the purpose of it. If you’re using the internet to entertain, it’s not aligned with our values. But if you’re using it in service of people, to help them, technology’s a great thing."
Place-based means any place
For Sorensen, PBE is a model all students can benefit from, whether “urban or rural, Navajo or not.” It’s a point that McClennen, whose job is to help a diverse range of schools adapt PBE curriculums, also stresses.
“No matter where you live, you can still ask, ‘What’s in my community that I can use?’” McClennen explains. "Every school has a unique ecosystem to capitalize on.”
In fact, STAR is just one example of how place-based education is being implemented. Traverse the country, and one will find other urban, rural and suburban examples. Take the Sustainability Academy in Burlington, Vermont, an urban school where students explore their neighborhoods to learn geography and serve food to the homeless grown on the schools’ raised vegetable beds. Or, the independent Journeys School in Jackson, Wyoming, where students head into the Grand Tetons to measure water levels and lead backpacking trips in the mountains.
As long as you have a place, it seems, place-based education can be part of your curriculum, helping engage learners and improve their communities for learners to come.
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