A School With a Sense of Place

By Deborah Fallows.

By Deborah Fallows.

We arrived at The Grove School in Redlands, California, just before their winter break, at about noon and right in time for lunch.

The Grove School is a public charter school with about 200 students in grades 7 through 12. It follows the Montessori system, and it adjoins a private Montessori elementary school. The complex has citrus groves on one side and pastures, livestock enclosures, farm buildings, and vegetable gardens on the other. The effect is of a rural-area school that happens to be on the edge   of a city.

The middle school on the campus is called The Farm, and students there grow some of the produce for the school lunches, including the one we ate. High schoolers do rotations in the kitchen in preparing, cooking, and cleaning up the meal.  On the day we visited the menu was called “Hawaiian,” and included chicken, rice, pasta (with some carrots, maybe from the farm) and a chunk of pineapple.  It was much better than the school lunches I remember.

Grove is a fairly new school in Redlands, graduating its first class in 2002. When my husband, Jim, grew up in the town, every student from every corner of the town went to its one high school, Redlands High. As the area grew, the RHS enrollment became unmanageably large. When Jim graduated in the late 1960s, he had 800+ classmates; a generation later, the town’s population had doubled, from around 35,000 to nearly 70,000, and the school was swollen too. Now two more 4-year public high schools have opened: Redlands East Valley in 1997, with an enrollment of about 2300 in grades 9 – 12, and Citrus Valley High School, which graduated its first class in 2012. Redlands High itself now has about 2300 students in grades 9 – 12.

Farmland to be planted at the Grove School; historic structures being refurbished in the rear.

Grove was founded in 1999 by a small number of teachers and parents who were interested in continuing the Montessori experience where their kids had thrived in lower grades. And in the spirit of generosity and participation that Redlanders consider a hallmark of the town, lots of people have pitched in to build or remodel the buildings and grounds of the school, which sits in the newly-designated Heritage Park historical district in Redlands

After lunch, Gena Engelfried, the head of the school, turned us over to a few groups of students, to tour us around and tell us about their school.

Principal Gena Engelfried, with an in-process outdoor
cooking site.

The high schoolers were excited to talk to us about what they call Praxis, a project they do every trimester, which centers on a philosophical question, the integration of that question into each of their academic classes, and a final paper and group project.  They just finished up “How do machines influence society?” and the next trimester’s question “How are belief systems formed?” had just been announced that morning.

Several of the students described their final projects, which included a welding piece, drama productions, and a magazine, among others.  My favorite was a video showing how machines helped society recover from a disaster. “What was the disaster?” we asked. The answer, which reminded us that we were indeed among high schoolers: zombie apocalypse.  All three of our guides said the Praxis was a lot to handle, especially the first year. “It was scary,” they said, but by the end of the experience, they had a great sense of accomplishment.  When graduates returned home from college to visit, they reported on how well praxis had prepared them for the kind of academic work they were expected to do in college.

The principal described that Grove followed a “place based approach to learning.” As I interpreted that, it means that the curriculum and activities of the school integrate with the town and its natural environment.  I’ve been going to Redlands myself since the late 1960s, and I would describe place based for Redlands to include oranges, farming, mountains, canyons, and a distinct feeling of being in The West.  After visiting Grove, I would say that the school indeed honors those elements of place, while operating in an academic environment that is, after all, preparing its students for college.

As a very small school that can’t naturally support the many traditional sports teams and productions that big high schools can, the Grove community does a lot of creative improvising. They do have a handful of sports teams, including coed soccer, girls volleyball and basketball, boys basketball, and archery, of which Redlands has a long tradition. To a student, each one recited a long list of nonacademic activities, from familiar ones like ballet, photography, choir, and piano to others like blacksmithing, forging, and (reminding us Redlands is really part of the West) bullwhip.

In the metal shop.

Students are highly encouraged to do 30 hours of service and 40 hours of internship each year. Those activities the kids described ranged from coaching kids’ soccer, to volunteering at the Redlands Community Hospital, the animal clinic, the Cold Weather Shelter, and working at a dry cleaners,  steaming clothes and handling the register.

Lunch time, under the orange trees.

Last year, every graduate went on to higher education, mostly to colleges in the California systems or other schools on the west coast. Besides heading for college, a few other students head in less traditional directions, to culinary school or acting school. The student profile of Grove is very different from that of the public schools. Grove attracts students who, for a large variety of reasons, are seeking a non-traditional school. It is, remember, a public school, and places are awarded by lottery, although preference is given to children of its founders, siblings of those enrolled, and those who have previously been in the Montessori system, numbering about 25%. There is a waiting list.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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