Life's Best Lessons are Outside the Classroom

Students find real-world solutions when they learn from their community, not just their textbooks.
Santa Fe Instalation, Chrissie Orr Photo


Jaydon Serrano pushes back and forth in his swivel chair, his back against a wall of blinking sound equipment. “I’m a little nervous and excited,” says the second-grader.

“You’ll do great,” says his mom, Ida Martinez.

It’s his turn to rehearse now, and the teacher asks him to read from the script in his hand. It’s a description of his class trip to an arts education center in Villa Victoria, a sprawling public housing complex in Boston’s South End, filled mostly with Puerto Rican residents, including many of Jaydon’s classmates. His delivery is smooth; He’s been practicing for a while, but one word trips him up. “What does ‘affordable’ mean?” he asks his mom. Ida helps him sound it out and defines it. “I didn’t used to know that word, but now I do,” he says with satisfaction.

In a short while, Jaydon and four of his classmates will enter a sound booth, don headphones, and speak into microphones larger than their hands. They are inside the studio of WBUR, Boston’s main NPR station. Across the thick pane of glass in the engineering room, they are watched by parents (looking proud, but almost as nervous as the kids), teachers, and well-wishers.

It’s an important moment for all of them. It’s the culmination of a lot of work by the second-grade class and teachers, but it’s also another success for an inner-city public school that’s bucking the trend of high drop-out rates, tuned-out kids, and dispirited teachers.

The second-graders are students at Young Achievers Science and Mathematics Pilot School on the south side of Boston. It’s not an exclusive school. Two-thirds of its students receive free or reduced-priced lunches; two-thirds are African-American, one-fifth Latino, and the remainder white, Native American, and Asian. Its curriculum isn’t focused on “teaching to the test,” though the school’s test scores consistently exceed the district’s average pass rates for math and English. The school succeeds by plugging the kids into the world around them—giving them a stake in every part of their community from neighborhood housing to food, recycling, and local government.

“Our success is based on a vision of education where kids learn by doing real things within the world around them and developing relationships with the assets within the community in which they live,” says Jinny Chalmers, principal of Young Achievers for the last 12 years. It’s dinner time, and Chalmers scoops out pasta for the anxious kids and parents as they wait their turns in the recording booth. For her, the radio project isn’t just a fun activity, but an essential part of the school’s mission, one of many projects that let the students participate directly in the life of the community.

José Massó, who hosts the station’s music show, ¡Con Salsa!, gently guides the kids as his sound engineer sits behind him.

“When I talk, you can hear me through here,” says Massó, tapping his headphones. Massó helped launch the radio project after attending a school curriculum night with his granddaughter. He and others at WBUR, as well as other Young Achievers parents and staff, have donated tremendous amounts of time and energy to the project, giving students an experience usually available only to children at exclusive private schools.

Jaydon, Kamal, DJ, and Deseau take turns at the microphone describing their trip through Villa Victoria. They talk about the neighborhood’s ties to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X, both of whom had spent time there during the 1960s. On his fourth try, Jaydon nails his segment describing a community struggle to protect affordable housing and keep the neighborhood from falling victim to a misguided 1960s urban renewal program. Their teacher, Annie Shah, stops DJ from fidgeting and rustling his paper while the others have their turns.

“Awesome job, everyone!” she says.

“Thank you, Miss Shah,” they respond in unison.

The Power of Place

Young Achievers was founded in the late 1990s by community activists concerned about the persistent gap in math and science test scores among the city’s minorities. The school began with a small, ad hoc set of programs, but its mission and curriculum expanded in 2003 when the school received a grant and training through a partnership with Community-Based School Environmental Education, or CO-SEED.

Based at Antioch University New England, CO-SEED is one of the leading proponents of a teaching approach called place-based education. With roots in environmental education, service learning, and the ideas of radical educators John Dewey and Paulo Freire, place-based education extends the learning environment beyond the classroom into the rest of the world, and invites the community to get involved as mentors. Parents are also encouraged to be part of the process, increasing their connection to the school and commitment to their children’s active involvement.

The more students are exposed to hands-on learning, the more they express an enthusiasm for engaging with their communities and taking care of the environment. And they gain critical thinking skills.

In CO-SEED’s vision, children don’t just learn about their local community; they actively seek out solutions to the problems they encounter.

CO-SEED’s founder, David Sobel, has become a national voice for education reform. “My interest in what we call place-based education emerged in the last 10 to 15 years,” says Sobel. “It started with a conviction that schools weren’t doing environmental education right. My colleagues and I felt that education needed to put a connection to community and place front and center.”

According to Sobel, when teachers get students involved in their surroundings, they begin to focus lessons on what the kids need rather than on the textbook. “You start thinking about how to get the kids engaged versus thinking, ‘How do I get the kids to learn all this math?’” Sobel says. “You get to the same point, but the means are different.”

At a place like Young Achievers, this means that a language lesson takes the form of a radio show. “It all ties back to the classroom,” says Bo Hoppin, the CO-SEED project director who has been working with the school for the past six years. “The kids are getting practical experience in oral communication, writing, and history.”

Likewise, a unit that teaches first-graders about food involves a visit to area farms. The kids go to a farmers market, take trips to a homeless shelter and soup kitchen, and meet with the mostly Jamaican migrant farm workers who pick fruit and vegetables in the area.

Students who engage directly with their communities and surroundings often see ways to take part in solving problems. Inspired by a unit on the environment, seventh and eighth graders at Young Achievers started school-wide recycling and gardening programs. Students also set up a store to offer healthier food choices and launched a successful campaign to convince the Board of Education to upgrade the school bathroom facilities and repair broken doors and equipment.

CO-SEED and other place-based advocates point to successful programs across the country where students not only learn but also make a difference. In California’s Bay Area, for example, the students in a place-based program initiated a campaign to protect an endangered species of shrimp only found in the region. Over the past decade, 1,200 students a year have worked with environmental engineers, area ranchers, farmers, and public land managers to restore the shrimp’s natural habitat.

In Guilford, Vermont, students at the Central School were having a hard time wrapping their heads around their lessons on ancient Greece. Their social studies teacher, Antioch alumna Jennifer Kramer, noticed the many Greek motifs in the town’s movie theater, originally built in the 1930s. Kramer established a partnership with the theater managers to have the students create a guide to the Greek and Art Deco elements of the theater, including images of the Temple of Hephaestus, constellations on the ceiling, and a bas-relief featuring Greek gods.

A number of studies by scholars and education groups suggest that the more students are exposed to hands-on learning, the more they express an enthusiasm for engaging with their communities and taking care of the environment. And they gain critical thinking skills. A study of 400 ninth and 12th graders in 11 schools in Florida compared students’ critical thinking skills in place-based and traditional classrooms. The place-based programs significantly raised students’ scores on the Cornell Critical Thinking Test. Studies have also shown that students in place-based programs tend to improve their overall GPA, stay in school longer, and receive more scholarships.

And the hands-on learning actually strengthens the students’ test-taking skills. In four separate studies, schools with place-based education programs scored higher on standardized tests.

Young Achievers has been the top performer of all 20 pilot schools in the Boston district on six of 12 standardized tests. The school is often the most requested destination in Boston’s open enrollment system. It has a high success rate in placing kids into prestigious and highly competitive public “exam schools,” such as Boston Latin, that regularly prepare kids for admission to top universities.

Drill and Kill

Considering these strong track records, one would expect many schools to jump on the place-based bandwagon. And CO-SEED does have a reach across the country, with programs in places such as Texas, Northern California, and rural New England.

But despite a national consensus that public education in America is in need of an overhaul, Sobel and his colleagues still encounter resistance from teachers and school boards. Besides a normal reluctance to try new approaches, Sobel places the blame squarely on the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The law places enormous pressure on educators to focus single-mindedly on raising school test scores, usually by “teaching to the test” and “skill and drill” (also known as “drill and kill”) exercises.

“If schools aren’t producing the desired results, they get punished,” says Sobel. “This leads to a mindset where people say ‘Gee, we’d love to do interesting things, but we have to focus on test scores.’ They think the only way to go is drill and kill and more pages in the math workbook.”

Sobel insists that test scores are not the most significant indicator of a successful school. “The big goal is to have kids who are actively engaged in learning. That leads to kids who have a sense of agency and a commitment to the environmental, social, and political parts of their community,” says Sobel. “They say, ‘Hey, I want the zoo to stay alive in Boston’ and ‘I want cleaner air in my neighborhood.’ Ultimately you want kids who feel like they have the capacity to shape the communities they live in as well as their own lives.”

Hard Work—But Worth It

Of course, creating a successful place-based program isn’t easy. “It’s a lot of work for the teachers,” admits Sobel. “It also takes a lot of creativity. You can’t just turn to page 19 in the math book.”

But the payoff can be tremendous, far beyond the higher test scores and orderly classrooms. “When you provide opportunities to actively engage kids and give them a chance to participate in community activism and concrete projects, you get students who are really excited about education,” says Sobel. “They don’t just learn about what it means to be a good citizen, they do good citizenship.” 

Parents at Young Achievers notice the difference in their children’s attitudes toward school and the world around them. Outside the recording booth at WBUR, Maggie Lopez’s daughter, Abriana, has just finished her radio segment. “Abriana loves the hands-on experiences in her classes,” says Lopez. “They make a point of explaining why they’re learning what they’re learning.” Lopez was so impressed by Young Achievers that she took Abriana out of private school to go there.

Crystal Thompson waits for her son, Machai, to take the microphone. She has sent all four of her children to Young Achievers. She especially appreciates the lengths the school goes to help overworked parents stay involved, such as an extended school day, as well as providing food and transportation at evening school presentations. “The teachers really care about the students—your kid is not just a number,” she says.

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.