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Boom to Bust coal camps outside Morgantown, West Virginia contained a lot of starving families at the onset of the 1930’s.  They were so nutritionally ravaged that President Hoover dispatched Russian war relief teams to address the emergency.  Once fed, they grew hungry for more.  And so it was that John Dewey, Eleanor Roosevelt and the PEA recruited Elsie Ripley Clapp not to “reform” a school but to literally form one that spoke to people who were so far gone, they no longer believed in a place known as the USA.

This was an assignment for Educators, not for hucksters or empty-headed consultants. Standard cliches applied. The pedal had to hit the metal. Everyone had to fish or cut bait. Commonsense was imperative so, shell-game Common Core Curriculum cultists would want nothing to do with a project like this where competence and not a dumbo data point was the bottom line.

There were many dark moments for Elsie and her teachers, but even these were illuminated by one, very big idea.

The foundation of democracy is faith in the capacities of human nature; faith in human intelligence and in the power of pooled and cooperative experience.  It is not the belief that these things are complete but that if given a show, they will grow and be able to generate progressively the knowledge and wisdom needed to guide collective action.
Democracy and Educational Administration by John Dewey 1937

REFORM actually meant to re-form or restore the activity and the democratic promise of schooling. This was nothing that could be cured by corporate cultist consultants, lowest common denominator curriculum, races to the top (since the USA had already raced straight to the bottom of the economic barrel) in-Bloom or Amplify. Technological, hedge-funded, Microsoft cotton candy distractions were of no use. Good, hard-working citizen had been industrially and economically stranded deliberately by Wall Street and there was no quick fix for sale anywhere. So, teachers stepped in because back in those days they were still allowed to think, problem solve and create from chicken scratch whatever was required.
Things were so bad that Hoover brought a bunch of bright lights to Washington DC to take aim at the travesty of starving children in a multitude of coal camps and communities across the not so great nation state. The very first interventions were based on getting the victims busy in their own behalf. No institutionalized passivity would prevail. Playgrounds were built in the middle of debris fields and gardens were planted in washtubs and slate piles. Families learned to can and preserve the food they’d grown and sometimes they learned all over again how to cook with fresh ingredients. Civilization had fallen away and had to be re-energized. It was a job for educators who weren’t afraid to take on the rehabilitation. It was multi-faceted and known by many names: community school, school as community, community-based learning, community in schools, and school at the center of community building.
Lucy Sprague Mitchell had taught waves of real teachers to wander the neighborhoods in search of resources for learning and investigation. The coal camp faculty followed suit and discovered devastation. In February of 1934, a woman with hands blue from the cold was found hauling a heavy basket up a steep hill of ice and snow to a shack unheated and un-electrified. Come July of the same year, a neighboring cabin revealed a dying infant covered with flies and families living in small, squalid rooms surrounded outside by abandoned tipples, collapsed coal shafts, empty company stores, broken glass fronts, rickety porches, cinder heaps and listless, worn-out lives. A rotting shell was the starting point for these determined pedagogues. Fetid, crowded steaming heat in summer and bitter, desolate, paralyzing cold in winter presided over a contingent of public privies, polluted water wells, saloons, brothels and idle intellects. This was not the time or place for fixed subject matter, ready-made rules, standardized test schedules, data aggregation, fragmented fact memorization or mass produced, superficial mustard plaster solutions to slow, difficult, complex social problems.

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