The Cottonwood School: Place Based Education

December 10, 2019 | | View Comments

By Sarah Anderson, Education Coordinator at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science in Portland, OR, and Author of Bringing School to Life: Place-Based Education Across the Curriculum

Many people would argue that the reason children go to school is to learn career skills so that they can one day enter the workforce. It’s true that people need jobs, and a good education can help them secure employment. But in our country, there’s a much grander purpose for education: giving students the training they need to maintain democracy and promote the public good. It’s a critical but formidable goal, and it means reframing how we think about school. 

Too often, traditional education fails to connect students with their own communities. Assignments and lecture topics may not resonate with their experience or give students the opportunity to learn more about the areas where they live. The lack of relevance in topics taught in school can lead to disengagement, misbehavior, and even dropping out. But what if, instead of forcing students to ask, “Why do I need to know this?”, we worked to take the walls down between school and the rest of the world? What if we invited students into our communities to explore, research, and experiment? What if we reconnected our children to the places where they live and gave them real reasons for learning, awakening their sense of agency at the same time? 

In place-based education, social and natural communities serve as laboratories for learning. Content connects to real places and people, and curricular goals combine with the goals of local agencies and organizations. Students investigate problems in their region and work together to design positive solutions. All the while, they develop skills in critical thinking, collaboration, and self-management – skills useful both in the workforce and when working for the public good. 

At the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science, a public charter school in Portland, Oregon, place-based education is infused into the classroom from kindergarten to eighth grade. Students frequently conduct fieldwork as an essential aspect of their learning, whether it be trekking to a local pond to learn about the life-cycle of amphibians or making an excursion to conduct surveys with neighbors. Teachers connect state and national standards to local topics: third-graders become experts in the geologic timeline of Oregon, fourth- and fifth-graders investigate the water cycle by traveling through their own watershed, sixth-graders learn about the Civil Rights Movement through an in-depth comparison with Portland’s Black history, and seventh- and eighth-graders uncover the workings of globalization first-hand by interviewing local business owners to find connections between local and global trade. Place-based education overlaps in many ways with the design thinking approach, from the prioritization of empathy to the process of designing solutions to real problems. 

One of the curricular units for our first- and second-graders centers on the study of community and neighborhoods. Last fall, our students constructed three-dimensional maps of a neighborhood in their classrooms, including representations of people, buildings, streets, and transportation. They then set out into the school’s neighborhood to learn more about the essential features. They toured: a local bank, the apartment building next door, the aerial tram that connects our neighborhood to the main campus of the Oregon Health and Science University, and several local parks. Using the Portland streetcar, students also visited a fire department and the Central Library, both located a short ride downtown, where they learned etiquette for riding public transportation and walking the city sidewalks. Additionally, a Portland police officer visited the classrooms, and a business owner whose family owns a large section of property in our neighborhood talked to students about her family history and the future development of the area. 


All through these explorations, students asked the people they met, “What does community means to you?” The answers often highlighted the idea of people helping or providing services to each other. This helped to build students’ own understanding of community as being essentially about people almost more than it is about place. In class, teachers shared books to support this learning, and to contribute diverse perspectives of children living in other urban areas.

After thoroughly exploring the neighborhood, students identified that there was no library within walking distance of the school. After a discussion based on what they could do to make our neighborhood better, they decided to build a Little Free Library. A Little Free Library is a public book box that allows people to take and leave books as a sort of book exchange. It does not serve the same function as a library in that choices are few and limited, and obviously it does not offer the same resources, but it does offer a small venue for accessing free books. As the classes considered adding a Little Free Library to the neighborhood, the teachers connected their discussion back to the meaning of community. If the primary role of being a good community member is to help other people or provide a needed service, would we be acting as good community members by adding a free book box to the neighborhood? The students decided yes, and to the project was adopted and taken to the next stage. 


Several students had seen examples of Little Free Libraries in their home neighborhoods. A volunteer from a local construction company visited the classrooms to give a quick lesson on essential design features that would be needed to keep books safe and dry through the seasons, such as walls, a waterproof roof and a door. Using the list of features, students came up with designs and voted for their favorite one. More volunteers at the construction company then built the library based on the students’ sketches. Among other requests, students asked that the library be shaped like a house and have a triangle-shaped roof with a chimney and a glass door. The builders created a beautiful structure based on student drawings and brought it into school for the children to paint, and the construction volunteers installed the library right outside of the school gates so that it is accessible to all neighbors. The project culminated in an official “unveiling” celebration where it was announced that the library was open for business. In the process of this project, students built a stronger understanding of what community means that they could apply to future endeavors at the Cottonwood School.


In the Little Free Library project, the students were not merely observers of their community, but became active contributors who believed that their ideas were valuable. Even at a young age, they were able to bring positive change to the place where they live. With this preparation, the students are ready to tackle more complex problems in seventh and eighth grade. Every spring, our oldest students participate in a program called Project Citizen. Developed by the Center for Civic Education and administered by the Classroom Law Project in Oregon, Project Citizen provides a template for students to identify a problem in their community, research it, brainstorm potential policy-based solutions, and enact an action plan. At the end of the trimester, classes have the opportunity to present their projects to a panel of judges at the Capitol Building in Salem and receive feedback. Throughout the process, students are able to delve deeply into an issue that is relevant to them while learning crucial skills in collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and public speaking.

Over the years, seventh- and eighth-graders have taken on a myriad of problems, from issues that are close to the school, such as pet waste in the neighborhood, not enough planning for reunification of families in case of an earthquake emergency, or a need for a safer playground, to problems with a wider reach, such as smoking laws in public parks and funding for domestic violence shelters. One seventh grade class chose the problem of traffic outside of our school. We are located in an urban building that was not designed to be a school, so we don’t have an ideal area for parents to drop off or pick up their children, and the limited available street parking is metered. In addition, there is no crosswalk or school zone signage nearby. To prepare for their project, students collected data over several days on how many cars stop at the stop sign on our street and how many roll through it. They found that only 20% of cars came to a complete stop. They also surveyed people impacted by traffic near the school, including parents who struggle to find parking and neighbors who navigate the added traffic flow. Both parents and school officials have sought solutions over the years, and students wanted to see what they could come up with.

Want design features like these delivered straight to your door? Our magazine is free with every membership – join for just $5 a month.

At first, the class thought that the easy solution to the problem would be to put more parking lots in the neighborhood. However, during their research phase they found that the city has intentionally limited parking in the local area in order to discourage cars. Instead, urban planners have prioritized bike lanes, nearby bus stops, and a streetcar route, not to mention the aerial tram. This allowed us to connect a local issue with a global concept – why was the city of Portland trying to build an infrastructure that promotes public transit and discourage cars? Why is it important to reduce carbon emissions? As students who are well-educated in the dangers of climate change, our kids could easily see why the traffic problem needed a more sustainable solution.


The class broke into small groups to research different solutions. One group looked into online platforms that help to organize carpools, while another found a “bike bus” developed in the Netherlands where students pedal a multi-seat bus to school. A third group made contact with an organization called Safe Routes to School, which helps organize walk/bike events and develops plans for parents and kids to drive less. Ultimately, this last solution was the one the students chose. They presented their project in Salem and went on to successfully organize a school-wide walk/bike event the following fall in which the majority of the school’s students traveled to school on foot or bike. Students used the event to encourage the school community to continue finding alternative transportation options throughout the year. They were unable to follow-up with data-collection, but the momentum from the fall event appeared to inspire more families to find alternative routes to school, including carpooling and using the near-by streetcar. 

Another year, an eighth-grade class was inspired to address unpaved roads in their home neighborhoods. Guided by an article in the Willamette Week, a local newspaper, the students learned that Portland has “…59 miles of unpaved dirt and gravel roads. That’s more than three times as much as in Nashville, Boise, Seattle, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis, Boston, Austin and San Francisco—combined.” (Pitkin, May 10, 2011) The class set out to conduct additional research and found that the city had no plans to upgrade the roads. If residents on such a road wanted paving, they would need to combine their resources and pay for it themselves. 

Fueled by a sense of economic injustice (many of the unpaved roads are in poorer neighborhoods, while downtown districts benefit from millions of dollars in redevelopment money from the city), students decided to create and promote a solution to the Portland Bureau of Transportation. However, while searching for information online, a group stumbled upon a report put together by a group of urban planning graduate students at Portland State University. The graduate students had also decided to tackle Portland’s unpaved roads as a project. They held community meetings and collected input from homeowners who live on unimproved roads to learn more of their perspective. The PSU students found that many people did not want their roads paved because it would increase traffic and cause people to drive faster. Using this feedback, the urban planning group went on to propose different design options for the unpaved roads such as pedestrian and bicycle walkways, community gardens, and greenspaces. 

Our eighth graders invited the urban planning students to present to their class, and one of the authors of the report came in to talk about the main points and to answer questions. We learned that the report had already been shared with the Bureau of Transportation, but she encouraged us to continue the effort, so the class created their own report, compiling research and presenting possible solutions. One group took photos of unpaved roads near their houses and then created overlays out of transparency sheets to show what the roads could look like with suggested improvements. Another group was invited to the Bureau of Transportation headquarters to give a presentation on their report, “Unpaved, Unimproved, and Unacceptable”.

Even though the city has not adopted the students’ recommendations, everyone in that class learned about the importance of research and relationship-building in a project. If we hadn’t accessed the report featuring feedback from community members, students would have proceeded with the project based on their own assumptions and not the perspective of people most impacted by the issue. The students also learned that solutions are not always simple, and that creative problem-solving can produce exciting possibilities. 

Place-based education serves our students as well as our communities. When students are given opportunities to join the public discourse concerning local problems and solutions, they leap to the challenge. Not only do we validate their intelligence and their creativity through this process, but we also confirm their membership in our society as competent agents of change. In the end, both our communities and our children benefit. As we consider the future of our towns, cities, and neighborhoods, it is essential that we build our young people into the plan – not later, but right now.