Connecting school with nature and town has big results
By Hanna Wheeler
In her desk’s side drawer, Principal Dana McCauley keeps a pair of sneakers, an old tee-shirt and jeans. She has to be prepared. At any point in the day, she might be wading in the stream, weeding the butterfly garden or banding birds with her K-5 students. She also participates in what’s become an annual tradition: rolling down the hill behind the school. And she has the grass stains to prove it.
During 10 years as a teaching principal at Crellin Elementary in western Maryland, McCauley has changed the curriculum to include projects that bring the students, and their principal, away from their desks and outside the classroom.“If we’re gonna preach it, we have to do it. I have to be willing to change my clothes and go outside too,” she said.
Crellin Elementary School in western Maryland is a rural public school with fewer than 90 students. It once faced the sadly typical challenges that public schools face, including student disengagement and failing test scores. But McCauley’s changes have transformed the small public school and rural town: overhauling the blighted playground, restoring the stream, creating an environmental education center, recruiting scores of volunteers and earning multiple awards including the President’s Environmental Youth Award, the Ernest Boyer Best Practices in Character Education Award, and last year’s much publicized ranking as the Number One School in Maryland when 100 percent of students earned passing test scores.
When McCauley first came to Crellin, people warned her against sending her own kids there. “The school didn’t have a very good reputation,” she said.
And the community of Crellin faces the reputation that is often affixed to small mining towns in Appalachia. In Garrett County, where Crellin is located, the per capita income and number of college degrees are far below the state and national averages. About 87 percent of Crellin students will receive free or reduced lunch this year. Driving to the school involves turning past the fire-damaged building of the local bar where patrons sit and stare from the porch. And remember that grassy hill behind the school? It once was an exposed black mound of coal waste, called a gob pile, that leached toxic metals into the stream and turned the water bright orange.
But McCauley doesn’t let statistics define her students or town. “That’s not the best thing about us,” she said. She says the best part is that students “are being responsible and respectful and taking care of what’s around. That’s what we do.”
McCauley has energized the parents too. “The parents are awesome,” she said. “They can’t always give us financial aid, but they’ll roll up their sleeves and do anything. You can’t find that everywhere.”
That level of involvement has earned the school even more national awards and speaking invitations. But the best evidence of the community’s pride in and hope for its children can be seen in the schoolyard.
When McCauley first came to Crellin, the schoolyard consisted of derelict equipment and a single line of scrubby trees separating the school from the gob pile. The property behind the school was overgrown, the neglected site of a former sawmill and railyard. McCauley says it was a place for drug deals and late-night parties. “I got tired of picking up beer cans,” she said.
She organized a community meeting to ask people how they would use the back property if the school could access it. The community responded that they wanted a place to walk and a safe place for their children to play. McCauley set out to attain that vision.
She also wanted to help her students develop a greater sense of town pride. She had them interview community members about the town’s history. The historical society helped students use old photos and documents to study what once was in the school’s back yard. Using that research, the students designed a new playground to tell the story of Crellin. When the time came to erect the new structure, a whopping 638 volunteers came to build it.
Meanwhile, the school had started a summer science camp where children explored the back property. One camper asked why the creek was orange, and McCauley promised she’d find out.
McCauley has a knack for finding people in town who seem to know everything and everyone. And she’s not afraid to ask for help. She says her tactic is “Using everybody’s strengths. And asking, ‘How can we figure this out together?’”
In a short amount of time, she collected a group of dedicated scientists, bureaucrats, business owners, non-profit workers and parents. She even tracked down a former Crellin student who had become a landscape architect. Together, they cut through legal tape to gain the use of the property, capped the gob pile with soil, treated the orange water and built a network of trails and boardwalks through the newly dedicated Crellin Environmental Education Laboratory. The restoration work was part of the curriculum. Students also built bat boxes and benches. They monitored the wetlands. They researched the history and ecology of the area and created educational signs. Instead of dealers and vandals, now families walk here after hours. Students jog along the trails as part of PE. They do real field research with experts in water chemistry, birds and fisheries.
“When you see the most squirrelly kid in the class— who cannot stay focused on anything— be fabulous outside because he can multi-task and do so many things and suddenly he’s the leader… how do you not say this [kind of learning] is good stuff? You just watch them, and you know that it’s right. You just feel in your gut that it’s right,” McCauley said.
McCauley’s success comes from reaching out to people. “We ask people to do things that they’re good at,” she said. She said volunteers become “rock stars” in the eyes of the kids just from knowing what they know about birds or carpentry or old trains. At a conference on parent engagement, a father of a Crellin student said he volunteers because he’s allowed to contribute his strengths and skills. He said he feels uncomfortable with literacy tutoring— that’s “the teacher’s job”— and he doesn’t want to just “decorate some bulletin board.” So he plants trees and fixes things and helps students to learn academic and practical skills through these hands-on projects.
All of the community involvement gives school work at Crellin a sense of purpose. But there’s a sense of fun here too.
Walking through the halls and grounds is like strolling through an interactive science museum. There’s a BirdCam with live footage of hatchings in the school nesting boxes. Students build and launch their own rockets with a real rocket scientist (a former NASA aerospace engineer who retired to Garrett County) while blasting Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” There’s the tank of trout that the students are raising. Now that they’ve restored their watershed, students can release their baby trout in the creek out back. Rows of waders and kick nets hang in the hallway, getting frequent use as students regularly monitor for benthic macroinvertebrates. And classrooms aren’t classrooms, they’re “base camps” where outdoor expeditions are launched.
Most importantly, the school has a sense of heart. The students and parents all have McCauley’s cell number. They call at night or over the summer when they have exciting news or want to know if the school veggie garden needs weeding. When they won the President’s Environmental Youth Award and were told they could bring only one student to the ceremony, McCauley and the teachers declined to go at all until the entire fifth grade could attend.
At the heart of Crellin, there’s a real focus on the children. When television crews come to interview McCauley about national awards or test scores, she tells them,“You need to focus on the kids. That’s what it’s really about. It’s not about me. It’s not about the teachers. It’s about the kids gaining that confidence and pride of where they are and what they know.”