Place-Based Education: Its time has come

Michigan Citizen, June 13-19, 2010

By Dr.Shari Saunders Professor of Educational Practice, University of Michigan

Imagine an approach to education that focuses on learning academic content in intellectually rigorous ways through active engagement with and in the local community. Doing hands-on activities that are relevant to the real world. Would we want Detroit's youth of Detroit to experience it?

There is such an approach. It is called Place-Based Education (PBE), and it is being used throughout the nation to educate youth.

The Rural School and CommunityTrust's definition of PBE is: "Learning that is rooted in what is local-the unique history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of a particular place. The community provides the context for learning, student work focuses on community needs and interests, and community members serve as resources and partners in every aspect of teaching and learning. This local focus has the power to engage students academically, pairing real-world relevance with intellectual rigor, while promoting genuine citizenship and preparing people to respect and live well in any community they choose."

There are many local community issues in Detroit that could serve as points of entry: violence, foreclosures, the incinerator, access to healthy food. Of these, access to healthy food offers a promising starting point for PBE since it is already happening. According to Otis Mathis, chair of the Board of Education, 59 Detroit public schools are involved in the farm-to-school program or have gardens.

Potential community partners for a DPS/PBE effort also exist: Black Community Food Security Network, Detroit Agricultural Network, Earthworks Urban Gardens, Greening of Detroit.

PBE is not only about bringing communities and schools together. Children are expected to work with academically rigorous content in real world settings. Therefore the academic component is essential. Because of the integrated nature of the curriculum in PBE, teachers may want some support in planning, integrating and revising their curriculum to support PBE. Creative Change Educational Solutions Ypsilanti, Michigan, supports schools and universities who use food systems, community revitalization and other sustainability topics as platforms for transformative curriculum change. The organization provides change models, professional development, and a library of multimedia course modules and instructional resources. (

Research shows that PBE improves students' analytical and problem-solving abilities, facilitates their development of self-discipline, collaboration skills, a sense of voice, self confidence and a taste for environmental stewardship and civic participation. (Gregory A. Smith and David Sobel: Place- and community-based education in schools. Routledge, 2010).

We have the schools, we have the community resources, and we have the curriculum and professional development support to make PBE a reality in Detroit Public Schools. To move forward what we need are the support and commitment of families, communities, teachers, administrators and other educational leaders.

If Place-Based Education was implemented in Detroit, would DPS be able to halt school closures by drawing in new students, keeping current students, and bringing back some of those that have left? Would it reduce the high-school dropout rate? Would it interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline?

To answer these questions, we have to give it a serious try, keeping in mind that PBE should not be seen as a panacea. Like any other approach, PBE can be poorly implemented in practice. Giving it a serious try would require thoughtful planning and implementation along with sufficient time to work through the challenges of change.

Is Place-Based Education a viable alternative to the current approaches to school reform in Detroit? If the answer is no, what should we try instead? If the answer is yes, our next step is to make it happen. If we have the will collectively, we can make a way. You decide.

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