Last week I went on rant about how our education system is not preparing kids for life. And since we’re doing an extended series on educational choices on both the radio show and on our blog, I just HAD to share a fascinating story about one school that DID prepare kids for life.
The story takes us back to 1940 in Arvin, California. By the way, I didn’t find out until I was an adult (a homeschooling mom, actually) how fascinating history really is. During my public education, it was little more than an exercise in memorizing dry facts and then regurgitating them for a test. But history is full of people’s stories — it’s full of drama and comedy and tragedy and serendipity and hopes and dreams. It’s interesting stuff!
And this story is no exception. It’s the story of the amazing Weedpatch School, and it should be a model for schools all over the country.
Back in 1940, the town of Arvin had a big problem, it was a problem facing many towns in California at that time. The problem was a group of people known as Okies. These were the people who had migrated from the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. They came to California, destitute, looking for work on one of the many lush California farms. They arrived with all of their belongings strapped to broken down old cars. They were starving, dirty and surviving only on a shred of hope that there might be some work for them in California.
But with so many people arriving at the same time with the same hope, there were at least 10 men for every job. Author John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath to bring awareness to the Okie’s plight and photographers like Dorothea Lange circulated images of the destitution to capture the public’s attention.
The government was aware of how bad things were. They stepped in and set up camps to help house this dying population. One of those was Weedpatch Camp in Arvin.
The Okie kids were having tremendous trouble in the public schools. They were dirty, uneducated, inconsistent in attendance (sometimes their parents needed them home to help with younger siblings or to help make money ) and often they didn’t have proper clothing (some wore over sized potato sacks, broken shoes or no shoes at all). These kids were big targets for bullying, and many teachers didn’t want the burden of teaching kids who were so far behind.
The school board was irritated by the tax burden of caring for these kids, and many shopkeepers and restaurant owners jumped on the irritation bandwagon and stopped serving Oakie families in their establishments.
But an educator named Leo Hart felt differently. He spent afternoons playing with the Oakie kids in a field next to Weedpatch Camp, and he knew that with the right opportunities, these kids would go far. They had already survived so much, and in spite of their appearance, they had heart and determination.
In 1939 he ran for the office of Kern County superintendent of education and won the position. His motivation was to “to find out what to do for these children to get them adjusted into society and to take their rightful place.” He knew the other schools didn’t want these kids, so he convinced the schools to officially claim that they had no room for them. That allowed him to apply to build an emergency school, which was granted, but he also knew that the school district didn’t want to pay for it. So Leo Hart set out to get donations.
Since the town’s people were happy to have the Okie kids out of their schools, they gladly donated old lumber, piping, electrical supplies, and other materials.
In May and June of 1940, Leo visited a number of colleges and universities in California searching for bright new graduates who wanted to help change the destiny of the Okie kids. He recruited people who would not only teach them the basics but would also help teach life skills. He gathered a group of idealists willing to work hard to get the Okies up to grade level and also teach health, agriculture, animal husbandry, typing, plumbing, electrical wiring and even aircraft mechanics.
Over the next year, the students and teachers and even Leo himself, built the school with donated materials and their own hands. The Arvin Federal Emergency School (better known as The Weedpatch School) didn’t only teach reading, writing, math, science, history and geography, it taught the kids carpentry, masonry and every other skilled labor needed to make the school operational. Kids worked in shifts. One group had lessons in the morning and worked on the school construction in the after noon, and another group did the opposite.
They planted an extensive garden that grew food for the Weedpatch Camp and raised animals. They converted a donated old train car into a classroom, complete with electricity and plumbing. They learned how to make clothing, can food, butcher meat, and even make their own cosmetics (how’s that for a chemistry class!). One of the teachers bought a C-46 airplane from a military surplus for $200, and the kids learned aircraft mechanics, and as a reward for academic excellence, they got to taxi the plane on the field.
The kids even built an in-ground swimming pool.
Soon, word got out about what was happening with the “dumb Okies” in this emergency school, and parents throughout the town wanted their kids to have these opportunities too. After four years of great success, the emergency charter ran out, and the school was incorporated into the larger district.
But by then, the attitude of the general public toward Okies had shifted, and the once discarded population of tattered, uneducated kids had transformed into a population of young people who understood their own value.
From the community of Okie kids who built the Weedpatch School came a college professor, the owner of Utah mining company, two high school principals, owners of two large construction companies in Hawaii and California, two restaurant owners in Boise, Idaho, one of the best Organic SEO managers, a judge, a nutritionist, a mechanical engineer, a legal secretary, a captain of the Kern County Fire Department, an investigator for the California Department of Industrial Relations, along with many school teachers, business owners and postal clerks.
With today’s MEGA push to boost kids’ self-esteem, we ought to take a lesson from the Weedpatch School. Instead of handing out meaningless “awards” and making sure no kid strikes out on the baseball field, we might want to give them opportunities to work hard and build something of value. Imagine how the Okie kids felt about themselves after they’d turned a dried up field into a school with an in-ground pool that they’d built with their own hands.
Now that’s public education at its finest!