Visionary grassroots education initiatives

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A dissertation submitted





in partial fulfillment of the

requirements for the degree of


This dissertation has been accepted for

the faculty of Fielding Graduate University by

Sue Marquis Gordon, PhD
Committee Chair


Jennifer L. Edwards, PhD, Research Faculty

Joyce Germaine-Watts, EdD, Faculty Reader

Brian Trautman, MA Ed, Student Reader

Madhu Suri Prakash, PhD, External Examiner

Success and Sustainability

of Visionary Grassroots Education Initiatives

in Rural Areas


Vicky L. Eiben


This study addressed the question: “What are the key elements in the success and sustainability of visionary grassroots education initiatives in rural areas?” Visionary grassroots education initiatives are community-based projects that address local learning and create new visions of what education is for and how it is done. These include initiatives such as folk schools, learning centers, learning cooperatives, and independent schools. They can supplement, enrich, or replace traditional school programs, and can encompass learning for all ages of students. Some educational advocates have identified these initiatives as a source of innovation and inspiration for educational futures. This dissertation research addressed three gaps in the literature: a) research on grassroots education initiatives is limited; b) research on qualitative aspects of success in alternative learning environments is minimal; c) rural issues and innovations are underrepresented in the national education dialogue and in research.

This research was an appreciative case study of three rural, grassroots education initiatives that included: Youth Initiative High School in Viroqua, Wisconsin; Cobscook Community Learning Center in Lubec, Maine; and Headwaters School in Red Star, Arkansas. These projects were initiated from within the community, located in rural areas, situated outside of the public school framework, striving to be accessible to all, at least 9 years old, and based on democratic processes. The data were gathered on-site and included 38 interviews, documentary artifacts, photographs, and field notes.

Three main themes spanned success and sustainability in these initiatives: a) they responded to broader cultural trends such as a desire for organizations created around values more representative of a broad range of human qualities; b) alignment with living systems qualities of: context, cooperation, creativity, cycles and patterns, dynamic balance and renewal, relationship, and wholeness created strengths that supported success and sustainability; c) they gave balanced attention to the areas of: Infrastructure; Identity; Spirit; and Earth, Community, and Global Connections. This research provides potential insights into success and sustainability of educational innovation in a variety of contexts.

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Many people have supported me in this doctoral journey the past 3 years. Each person helped to make possible my successful completion of this dissertation and degree.

I had a wonderful dissertation committee. First and foremost, Sue Gordon, my mentor throughout the program and my dissertation chair, has been a steady guide and support, offering encouragement when needed as well as critical feedback. She has been available whenever I have needed her. Her support and advocacy made possible a grant that funded my research. My research faculty, Jenny Edward’s, thorough and thoughtful editing has taught me much about the writing process and has held me to very high standards, which I have greatly appreciated. Joyce Germaine Watts, my faculty reader, was the committee member who pushed me to think carefully and deeply about a number of challenging issues and concepts. She has helped me to grow as a thoughtful scholar. My external reader, Madhu Suri Prakash, brought a broad understanding of grassroots initiatives that stretched my knowledge and my thinking. She has introduced me to a number of valuable resources and has been wonderfully supportive of my research path. This dissertation had two student readers. Dene Muller offered her thoughtful feedback on the first draft and has been a friend and support in the process. I was so thankful for Brian Trautman’s willingness to offer his insights for the second reading.

I was very thankful for the financial support of the Institute for Social Innovation, whose grant funded my research and made it possible for me to travel to Maine and Arkansas, as well as to buy necessary recording equipment.

I am deeply appreciative of the people at each of the case study sites who graciously gave of their time and energy to help me gain an in-depth understanding of their grassroots project. In particular, Alan Furth at CCLC, whose passion and vision for CCLC and similar projects has been an inspiration. From the first contact, Alan stressed the importance and value of such research. He made possible a rich week of visits with a diverse group of people. At Headwaters School, Kate and Howard Kuff opened their home to my son and me, complete strangers to them, for 3 days. They enthusiastically introduced us to rural Arkansas, helped to organize my schedule for the weekend, and passionately shared with me their decades of experience at the school. At Youth Initiative High School in my own community, I appreciated the opportunity to get to know acquaintances better and to gain a deeper understanding of a local school. It was an honor to meet all of the committed, compassionate, and visionary people at each of the three sites. I was deeply touched by their stories and their generosity.

I have been fortunate to be part of an amazing women’s group, nine women who gather for an evening every 2 weeks to share stories, joys, struggles, and questions. From my first musings about whether or not I should enter a doctoral program, they have been an unfailing source of support and encouragement. In the final stretch of the dissertation when it was clear that I needed some computer and word processing assistance, Katherine Koenig stepped forward, and in the midst of starting a new job herself, helped me to format all my tables and figures as well as clean up the word processing of the entire document. Katherine also guided me through the process of creating a power point for my Final Oral Review. During the last week of editing to get the document ready to send to the whole committee, these wonderful women brought meals and helped with childcare so that I could focus completely on finishing.

This whole journey has taught me a new level of trust in the serendipitous workings of the universe. As I was finishing the initial writing of the final chapters on a Friday afternoon, my computer crashed. My brother-in-law, Robert Hoversten, quickly came to the rescue, and was able to get into the hard drive and download everything onto a disc for me. A few weeks prior to this, a friend, Susan Boudreau, who was in the process of moving to the area, had asked to store her computer at our house and had given us full use of it. With the disc from Robert and with Susan’s computer, I was up and running again by Monday morning. Katherine was available just as I realized I had a need. The right support seemed to appear at the right time.

Last, but not least, has been the important role of my husband, Randy, and son, Jesse. This doctoral process has demanded a new level of flexibility and autonomy on their parts. I have been unavailable for 3 hours of every morning, 6 days a week, for 3 years. For them, this has meant making breakfast, doing farm chores, and getting off to work and school without help from me. Randy also offered many hours of editorial feedback on works in process. I always appreciated an extra pair of eyes and a fresh perspective on a paper. Without Randy and Jesse’s willingness to make adjustments and to support me whole heartedly in this endeavor, I could not have done this. I have been a doctoral student for nearly a third of Jesse’s life at this point. I hope that he has not only learned that his mom isn’t always available, but has also learned a little about commitment, perseverance, and the value of following a passion.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Introduction 1

Introduction 1

Statement of the Problem 5

Purpose of the Research Study 7

Explanation of Terms 10

Significance of the Study 19

Summary 20

Chapter Two: Literature Review 23

Introduction 23

The Rural Context 24

Perceptions and Myths About Rural Areas 25

The Rural Rebound 27

Rural Strengths 28

Three Examples of Rural Communities in the United States 29

Lubec, Maine 29

Red Star, Arkansas 32

Viroqua, Wisconsin 35

Rural Education 37

Influences on the Development of Visionary Grassroots Education 43

Popular Education 44

Folk Education 46

Public Homeplace Learning 46

Indigenous Education 46

Experiential Education 47

Alternative Education 48

Postmodern Perspectives 48

Features of Visionary Grassroots Education 52

Public 53

Place-based 55

Relational 61

Catalysts for Visionary Grassroots Education 63

Philosophical Lens—What is Education For? 64

Historical Lens 65

Lens of Equity, Justice, and Democracy 70

Lens of Living Systems 73

Living Systems in Summary 78

Lens of Humanity 78

Lens of Cultural and Societal Trends 81

Lens of Child Development and Neurological Potential 84

Lens of School Size 87

Lens of School Facilities 90


Types of Visionary Grassroots Education 91

Homeschooling and Learning Cooperatives 93

Community Learning Centers 100

Innovative Schools 103

Folk Schools 104

Research on Success and Sustainability in Visionary Grassroots

Education Initiatives 107

Innovative Schools 108

Community Organizing and Community Development 110

Rural Education Research 115

Summary of the Research Literature 116

Chapter Summary 119

Chapter Three: Methodology 122

Introduction 122

Theoretical and Methodological Foundation 122

Action Research 122

Appreciative Inquiry 125

Case Study Methods 126

Case Study Sites 128

Youth Initiative High School—Viroqua, Wisconsin 129

Cobscook Community Learning Center—Lubec, Maine 130

Headwaters School—Red Star, Arkansas 130

Participants 131

Data Collection Procedures 132

Observation 132

Documents 132

Interviews 133

Data Analysis 136

Researcher Bias 137

Limitations and Delimitations of the Study 138

Summary 140

Chapter Four: Results 143

Introduction 143

Qualitative Data Results 143

Identity 145

Youth Initiative High School 145

History 145

Mission 148

Facility 148

Program 148

Vision 151

Cobscook Community Learning Center 152


History 152

Mission 154

Facility 154

Program 155

Vision 157

Headwaters School 158

History 159

Mission 162

Facility 163

Program 163

Vision 164

Summary 165

Infrastructure and Organization 169

Leadership and Decision-Making 169

YIHS 169

CCLC 170

Headwaters 170

Funding and Accessibility 171

YIHS 171

CCLC 172

Headwaters 172

Summary 173

Spirit 177

YIHS 177

CCLC 177

Headwaters 178

Summary 178

Earth, Community, and Global Connections 179

YIHS 179

CCLC 180

Headwaters 180

Summary 181

Challenges and Crises 182

YIHS 182

CCLC 183

Headwaters 185

What is Success? 187

YIHS 188

CCLC 189

Headwaters 190

How is Sustainability Built? 192

YIHS 192

CCLC 192

Headwaters 193


Summary 193

Chapter Five: Results and Comparative Analysis 195

Introduction 195

Organizational Differences Among the Sites 195

Learning from Challenges 197

The Role of the Identity of the Initiators, Local Geography,

Societal Trends, and Paradigm Shift 198

Living Systems, Sustainability, and Visionary Grassroots Education Initiatives 205

Context 207

YIHS 207

CCLC 207

Headwaters 207

Cooperation 208

YIHS 208

CCLC 208

Headwaters 208

Creativity 209

YIHS 209

CCLC 209

Headwaters 209

Cycles and Patterns 209

YIHS 209

CCLC 210

Headwaters 210

Diversity 210

YIHS 210

CCLC 210

Headwaters 211

Dynamic Balance and Renewal 212

YIHS 212

CCLC 212

Headwaters 212

Self-Organizing 212

YIHS 213

CCLC 213

Headwaters 213

Relationship 213

YIHS 214

CCLC 214

Headwaters 214

Wholeness and Complexity 215

YIHS 215

CCLC 215


Headwaters 215

Common Elements in All Three Organizations 216

Summary 218

Chapter Six: Conclusions 220

Introduction 220

Major Findings from the Study Related to Theory and Practice 221

Alignment with the Literature 221

Key Elements in Success and Sustainability in Three Visionary Grassroots

Education Initiatives 229

Recommendations for Further Research 235

Summary 236

References 240

Appendix A: Interview Questions 263

Appendix B: Informed Consent 265

Appendix C: Youth Initiative High School Core Values Document 267

List of Tables


Table 1: Site Information and Demographics 167

Table 2: Infrastructure, Resources, and Organization 175

List of Figures


Figure 1: Quintessential Human Qualities 80

Figure 2: Core Values of Youth Initiative High School 204

Figure 3: Core Values of Cobscook Community Learning Center 204

Figure 4: Core Values of Headwaters School 204

Figure 5: Common Themes 217

Figure 6: Domains of the Successful and Sustainable Visionary Grassroots

Education Initiative 232



Like many Americans, I listened and watched with horror as Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf coast in August of 2005. As an educator, I was particularly interested in hearing about schools and children in the wake of Katrina. In the following months, I heard only brief reports about New Orleans’ schools, and nothing as I had idealistically hoped, about visionary educators who saw an opportunity for positive change in the disaster. Then in the spring, I began listening to interviews with Malik Rahim (Eirene, 2006), reading material on the website of the Common Ground Collective that Rahim founded, and talking with individuals who had volunteered with Common Ground. Here was an organization that was finding potential and hope in the rubble. Rahim, a native of New Orleans, committed himself and the Common Ground Collective to rebuilding New Orleans’ neighborhoods with a vision of sustainability and justice. In education, this has meant saying “No” to corporate take-overs and empowering people in local neighborhoods to become actively involved in providing education to learners of all ages. Common Ground has initiated a number of community-based educational projects since Hurricane Katrina such as childcare cooperatives, after school youth programs, and summer school programs (Common Ground website).

In addition, the leaders of Common Ground have a desire to create community schools that are open to all and not controlled by the government. They want schools where families are intimately involved, where curriculum reflects children’s developmental needs and learning styles, and where the content and structure of the school reflects and is sensitive to the local culture and the environment (Kids and Community Staff, 2006). Their vision is a courageous one in a climate of increasing involvement of the federal government and high stakes testing; however, Rahim recognized that such an education is what is needed to truly regenerate the heart as well as the infrastructure of neighborhoods.

The vision held by Rahim and others of the Common Ground Collective is connected to a growing grassroots movement that seeks a radically different educational approach for children and communities. The Common Ground Collective is an urban project that inspired me to pay attention to and reflect on similar projects taking place in rural areas. This dissertation research was a comprehensive case study of three rural schools or educational organizations that are examples of visionary grassroots education initiatives. The research included 38 interviews that focused on the practices and core values of initiatives. From the key themes that emerged across the three sites, a picture of how successful projects are created and sustained was built.

In the last 2 decades, grassroots organizations have proliferated, along with a renaissance in ideas around community-based learning, both globally and in the United States (Ellis, 2000; Miller, 2000; UNESCO, 2000). Leaders of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized that these grassroots developments have been inspired by popular education, particularly the work of Freire (e.g., 2000), by research emerging from the new sciences (e.g., Zohar & Marshall, 1994), by research on local cultures and knowledge (e.g., Oliver, Canniff, & Korhonen, 2002) and by current research on multiple intelligences and the development of human potential (e.g., Jensen, 2005).

In the United States, one grassroots education movement in particular has shown dramatic growth. In 1980, the United States had approximately 12,000 homeschoolers. Today, nearly 2 million people are homeschooling, a growth rate of 20% annually (Mintz, 2000). I discuss this significant growth rate further in chapter 2. Miller, writing as the editor of a volume of collected writings entitled Creating Learning Communities, described new educational initiatives in the United States as “spontaneous manifestations of a true grassroots movement in education” (p. 12) that is emerging from parents, educators, and social critics who are seeking more meaningful ways of living and learning. He went so far as to say that “an educational revolution is underway, and it is gaining momentum” (p. 12).

In my own rural community, growth in a variety of grassroots educational alternatives has occurred in the last 2 ½ decades. Viroqua, a rural Wisconsin community of 4,000, has the following community-initiated education alternatives: a charter high school, two elementary schools affiliated with religious organizations, a K-8 Waldorf school, a student-initiated high school (one of the sites for this research), at least two homeschool cooperatives, Driftless Folk School, and a recently formed group working to create a farm school for all ages.

Grassroots education projects occur in urban and rural settings as well as in public and private settings. One example of a rural project in a public school setting that has had a profound impact on how students learn and think about life, as well as on the attitudes and values of the community as a whole, is a project in the small town of Whitwell, Tennessee (Weinstein & Weinstein, 2004). It began as a simple classroom project at the request of the principal. She asked middle school social studies teachers to create a holocaust education class as a starting point for teaching about tolerance. During the project, students were deeply affected by the massive scale of the holocaust and decided to collect something to represent all the lives that were lost. They decided upon paper clips because they were invented by a Norwegian Jew, and they were worn by Norwegians on their lapels during World War Two to symbolize their protest against Nazi policies. The students in Whitwell collected 6 million paperclips to represent the 6 million Jews killed during the Nazi era. Student commitment to and enthusiasm for the project led to widespread involvement of the community and eventually to world-wide attention. Hearts and minds were transformed through this simple grassroots learning project. In 2004, an award-winning documentary, Paper Clips, was released that tells the story (Fab, Johnson, & Pinchot). Today, in Whitwell, Tennessee, just miles from the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, a permanent holocaust memorial has been established, run primarily by students of the local school. The impact of this project continues to have a ripple effect. I offer this story as an example of the wide variety of grassroots education initiatives and the potential impact they can have on communities. This dissertation is focused on one small category of grassroots education initiatives, visionary projects that occur in rural settings outside of public education.

Miller (2000) and Schlechty (2001), educational advocates for decades, have identified grassroots initiatives such as learning centers and learning cooperatives as a source of hope for the future of education. They have indicated that these fledgling grassroots initiatives may be a prophetic voice for educational futures. Other authors have concurred. Ellis (2000) described learning centers as “among the most seminal innovations of the past decade” and said that “they may be the seeds for a deep, fundamental change in the education learning system of the future” (p. 19). L’Amoreaux (2000) identified the growth of community learning centers “as one of the most exciting developments on the learning horizon today” (p. 166). Belenky, a co-author of A Tradition That Has No Name (Belenky, Bond, & Winestock, 1997), reflected after a visit to one grassroots initiative, the Cobscook Community Learning Center (CCLC), one of the sites of this research, “The CCLC has the potential of becoming a model program of great significance . . . . CCLC embraces a remarkable number of qualities that enabled earlier institutions to become powerful forces for transformation” (CCLC Website, para. 19).

Visionary grassroots education initiatives such as the Common Ground Collective and CCLC can be supported and strengthened through greater understanding of what grows success and makes it possible for such initiatives to endure over time. This chapter contains an introduction to the topic of visionary grassroots initiatives in the United States, an overview of the research, and a definition of terms that are central in this dissertation.

Statement of the Problem

Changes in education are crucial in the face of social and ecological crises (Orr, 1992), the radically changing nature of global society (Bowers, 2000), and an emerging systemic worldview (Capra, 2002). The current system of education in the U.S. was designed in the 1800s to meet the needs of industrial society. Some authors have expressed concern that many of the features of the system do not serve present needs, such as its hierarchical organization (Clinchy, 2007; Miller, 2000; Sarason, 2000; Senge et al., 2000; Tyack, 1974), bureaucratic leadership (Clinchy; Miller; Sarason; Senge et al.; Tyack), deeply embedded structural inequalities (Kozol, 2005; Lipman, 2006; Tyack), textbook-driven curriculum (Clinchy; Miller; Sarason; Senge et al..; Tyack), disconnection from the local context (Clinchy; Lipman; Miller; Sarason; Senge et al.), heavy focus on cognitive aspects of learning (Clinchy; Miller; Sarason; Senge et al), and a Western bias (Clinchy; Miller). For example, Clinchy (2007) summarized the system this way:

The present organizational structure of our Western system of education—and especially the structure of our scientifically managed, factory-model American public school system—is culturally and educationally obsolete. It is not a system equipped to promote the full range of human intelligence granted us by our evolutionary heritage and needed by our still exploding knowledge business. (p. 106)

In addition, a loss of public control and voice in education can be seen in the imposition of high-stakes testing, the push for standardized curriculum, and an emphasis on economic, corporate, and government interests (Emery, 2005; Emery & Ohanian, 2004). Educational philosopher, Hutchinson (2004), reflecting on the loss of public engagement and democracy in education in recent years, asserted that educators must re-create education that is grassroots, is local, and emphasizes community.

A number of educators have described a growing place for grassroots education alternatives outside of the existing system (e.g., Ellis, 2000; Hutchinson, 2004; Miller, 2000; Schlechty, 2001). Education advocates are encouraging teachers, parents, students, and others to oppose the high-stakes testing agenda and the corporatization of schooling by supporting grassroots initiatives that build democracy and community, support social justice, integrate the local environment, and create innovative, new visions for education (Emery & Ohanian, 2004; Hutchinson, 2004; Miller, 2000). Although researchers have not documented definite numbers except for homeschooling, some authors have indicated that growing numbers of families, organizations, and communities are seeking educational alternatives that are better designed for the present age and are more responsive to the needs of children, families, and the local context (e.g,. Ellis, 2000; Miller, 2000). Hutchinson (2004) asserted that re-creating education with an emphasis on the grassroots and community is a huge project, yet not doing so involves great costs to society.

The need for grassroots initiatives has been clearly expressed by a number of education advocates. Communities are seeking to create them. Very little research has been done on these initiatives (Belenky, personal communication, March 26, 2007; Firth, personal communication, February 12, 2007; R. Miller, personal communication, March 2, 2007; Spicer, personal communication, March 11, 2007). How can communities be supported in their endeavors to provide educational alternatives that are successful and sustainable? Marshall (1997) proposed an exploration of the conditions and guiding principles that could govern the creation of sustainable learning communities and transform the existing industrial paradigm of schooling. Research is critical for generating the knowledge and understanding to support the healthy and sustainable development of such grassroots projects. In this study, I sought to address these issues.

Purpose of the Research Study

This research was an appreciative study that addressed two questions: What are the key elements that create success in grassroots education initiatives? What features or activities support the sustainability of success in grassroots education initiatives? The research responded to three gaps in the literature: a) research on grassroots education initiatives is limited; b) research on qualitative aspects of success in alternative environments is minimal (Gallego, Rueda, & Moll, 2005); c) much of the research on current reform and innovation has been in urban schools, resulting in a paucity of research that examines how rural communities are using the local environment in educational innovations (Bauch, 2001; Sherwood, 2000).

Rural issues and innovations are largely underrepresented in the national education dialogue, even though 40% of the nation’s school districts are in rural areas (Johnson & Strange, 2007). Rural areas face issues as pressing as urban areas, have as much diversity, and have 17% more poverty (Beeson & Strange, 2000). Researchers have pointed out gaps and shortcomings in rural research (e.g., Arnold, 2005; Bauch, 2001; Sherwood, 2000). Sherwood stressed that “Rural education research has been misunderstood, underfunded, unencouraged and, taken as a whole, the resulting collection of work has suffered for it, according to many observers” (p. 159).

Arnold (2005) has described rural schools as “the poor country cousins of the U.S. education system” (para. 1) and has insisted that the needs of rural communities have, to a large extent, been ignored by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). Rural schools often must implement policy that was designed for urban and suburban schools. Another example of the lack of support for rural education is seen in the action of The Institute of Education Sciences (part of the USDE). They eliminated the Clearinghouse of Rural Education and Small Schools as part of a restructuring of the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) (Arnold). One important thing that the USDE did for rural schools was publish The Condition of Education in Rural Schools (Stern, 1994). This was a comprehensive report of the condition of education in rural communities. Unfortunately, the USDE has chosen not to update the report, and researchers, educators, and policy-makers do not have access to comprehensive information from the federal government about rural schools more recent than 1994. Arnold asserted that this sends a clear message that “the USDE is unwilling to allocate resources once every 10 years to produce a rural education report to guide policy making and better support rural communities” (para. 11).

Another example of the limited information available to educators on rural education and rural issues was demonstrated at the 2007 American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual conference. The conference boasted a catalog with 359 pages of conference offerings (AERA, 2007). An examination of the topic of “Rural Education” in the index yielded 13 sessions, or about one page of listings. Upon closer examination of the 13 sessions, only five were specifically and exclusively about rural education issues such as “Gender, Race, and Class Intersections with Rural Education.” The remaining eight sessions were broad topics in which one of the panel presenters represented a rural area, such as a session on “Professional Development Schools,” in which one of the presenters was from a professional development school in a rural area. As a rural educator, it is unacceptable that a national research conference would have less than one page of offerings out of 359 pages that specifically address the learning context of close to half of the nation’s school districts. This dissertation contributes to much-needed research in the area of rural education.

My objective was to examine community-initiated, rural projects that are creating new visions for education and to examine what makes them successful and sustainable. The findings from this study can be used to provide support for rural communities and grassroots organizations seeking to create innovative educational alternatives. Cobscook Community Learning Center in Maine, one of the sites for this research, chose to participate because of their desire for research to bolster their work, as well as to assist in sharing their model with other rural communities (Furth, personal communication, Feb. 1, 2007).

Esteva and Prakash (1998) identified a need for “discourse to articulate the wide variety of contemporary grassroots initiatives” (p. 198). Ladson-Billings and Tate (2006), in their recent book, gave voice to a number of experienced researchers who expressed the need for educational research that is focused on the broader public good. “Broader public good,” or “public interest,” is defined as “those decisions and actions that further democracy, democratic practices, equity, and social justice” (p. 231). This is the understanding of public good, public interest, or common good that is applied in this study. In the third part of the book, grassroots activism is addressed. In this section, Blumenfeld-Jones (2006) encouraged educational researchers to pursue research at the grassroots level. My research addresses both of these issues: the need to observe the variety of education initiatives at the grassroots, and the need to observe how they are successfully serving the public interest or the public good in small, rural communities.

My research was a comprehensive case study of three rural schools or educational organizations that are examples of visionary grassroots education. The schools or organizations selected were initiated from within the community; are located in rural areas; are situated outside of the public school framework; are striving to be accessible to all; have a history of at least 9 years; are based on democratic processes; support intergenerational learning; and encourage cultural understanding, collaboration, and place-based experiences. The individual sites do not necessarily have all the elements of visionary grassroots education initiatives, nor are they perfect models, but taken together, they build a picture of the variety and the core values shared by initiatives. Data were gathered through: on-site observations; interviews with administrators, teachers, students, parents, board members, and community members; and the examination of documentary artifacts. From the key themes that emerged, a picture of how successful projects are created and sustained was built.

Explanation of Terms

  • Grassroots Education.

“Grassroots education” is a term commonly used in Latin America (Streck, 2003) where such projects are called grupos bases (Salzman, 2004). This refers to groups of people who work on behalf of the local people, and the work is initiated and carried out by the local people. Grassroots education is not a term in common use in U.S. education, but it is closely related to People’s Education, which is an umbrella term used in the United States to describe educational approaches for adults that are community-based and focused on democratic social change (Spicer, 2000). Those involved in People’s Education believe that the purpose of education is personal growth and creativity, along with interpersonal and community growth and development (Spicer). I have not found a term that is being applied to similar community-based education initiatives for children as well as adults and is taking place outside of mainstream education. I have chosen to use the term, grassroots education, rather than People’s Education, for three reasons. First, most forms of People’s Education have historically served adults, and I seek to address education for all levels of students. Second, I want to expand the content of People’s Education. Generally focused on older youth and adults, People’s Education is often focused on issues. In bringing empowering, community-based education to younger children, more comprehensive curriculum can be included in grassroots education. And third, I want to emphasize the local and public nature of education through the term, grassroots, which carries a connotation of activity at the most basic level, close to home and the common people (Hutchinson, 2004).

A definition of grassroots education emerges from the broader definition of grassroots initiatives, as well as from descriptions of grassroots learning in a number of contexts. Esteva and Prakash (1998) offered this definition:

Grassroots initiatives are organized by “the people” themselves, for their own survival, flourishing and enduring; both independent from and antagonistic to the state in its formal and corporative structures . . . . mainly expressed in reclaimed or regenerated commons in both urban and rural settings, and clearly concerned with the common good, both natural and social. (p. 13)

Salzman (2004), a physicist at the University of Massachusetts who has been involved in numerous grassroots projects, especially in Latin America, has articulated a similar definition. He described grassroots initiatives as those that “are neither connected with the government or corporate-based, but which arise spontaneously in response to unmet local needs” (para. 8). Several authors have offered descriptions of learning or education at the grassroots. Esteva, Stuchul, and Prakash (2005) described grassroots projects as “creative, convivial initiatives that widen their capacity for learning, studying, and for doing” (p. 28). Another author, Teran (2005), has also been involved with grassroots projects. He referred to these projects as “vernacular education” (p. 71) and observed that “working against a sense of fragmentation of core cultural narratives, many communities are seeking to reconstruct their stories, to regenerate those cultural spaces that define and give meaning to their lives” (p. 71).

Prakash (personal communication, June 7, 2007) suggested two ways of looking at grassroots education. Grassroots education can be found within the institutional framework of schooling in the form of innovative schools in both the public and private sectors. They are part of formal education, and participation in these educational alternatives leads to degrees, diplomas, or certificates. The story of the small school in rural Tennessee and their holocaust project is an example of a public, grassroots learning project. In the private sector, the work of Dewey (1938), Steiner (1920), Montessori (2002), Gardner (1991), and Neill (1995), among others, has inspired grassroots groups to create alternative schools. In this dissertation research, Youth Initiative High School (YIHS), though unconventional in their approach, is part of the formal educational framework.

The other way of looking at grassroots education is the informal approach to teaching and learning outside of the institutional framework, such as those described in the previous paragraph by Esteva et al. (2005) and by Teran (2005). In the U.S., the work of Illich (1971), Holt (1976), Grundtvig (Lawson, 1991), and Horton (Adams & Horton, 1995) has inspired numerous grassroots initiatives. Folk schools, learning centers, homeschooling, and learning cooperatives fall into this category of informal approaches that do not offer degrees or diplomas and focus on local cultural knowledge and skills as well as community and personal development. The other two sites for this dissertation research, Cobscook Community Learning Center (CCLC) and Headwaters School, are in this category.

These definitions of grassroots initiatives and grassroots learning applied to education describe education that is initiated by local people without government or corporate influence and that seeks to address local learning. This can encompass a broad range of initiatives from religious conservatives and those with political agendas to those interested in developmentally appropriate education approaches, all who aim to address local learning. In this study, I examined what I call visionary grassroots education, a specific category of grassroots initiatives where the people who are involved hold a different vision than the mainstream of the purposes and processes of learning. Visionary grassroots education can encompass all learning for all ages of students. It includes features from various forms of People’s Education, as well as other pedagogical approaches such as popular education, folk education, indigenous education, public homeplace learning, and experiential education. Visionary grassroots education initiatives take a variety of forms in the U.S., such as community learning centers, learning cooperatives, innovative independent schools, and folk schools. These initiatives can supplement, enrich, or replace traditional school programs. I present an expanded description of visionary grassroots education in chapter 2. In this dissertation, when I use the term grassroots education, it refers to visionary grassroots initiatives.

Visionary grassroots initiatives are not a proposal for systemic reform, but for the creation of vibrant, publicly accessible alternatives whose leaders and participants hold a different vision of what education is for and how it serves children and communities. In addition, grassroots education advocates do not propose initiatives as a new system to replace the old one. The concept of “one best system” to serve everyone is obsolete (Clinchy, 2007; Miller, 2000; Tyack, 1974). Clinchy, in his most recent book, Rescuing the Public Schools: What it Will Take to Leave No Child Behind (2007), advocated that public education in a democracy means that “there should not be any single approach, any single way of educating the young that is arbitrarily imposed on all students, all parents, all schools, and all school systems . . . . it means offering a wide range of different kinds of schooling” (p. 106). It is critically important that public alternatives be created for a myriad of reasons that are outlined in-depth in chapter 2. What is needed is a “multiplicity of models” (Noddings, 1995, p. 368) that support and strengthen diversity. Grassroots learning communities are one way to explore alternatives to the mainstream system.

  • Education

The initiatives in this study are described as visionary grassroots education initiatives. Education is also a term that warrants discussion. Scholars and practitioners define education in different ways. In some contexts, education refers to the institutional system of formal schools, the education system. Education is also what happens in schools, and the end result is diplomas, certificates, or degrees. In addition, scholars speak of education as a process that takes place in a variety of contexts and for a variety of purposes and is the interactive experience of teaching and learning.

For some, grassroots education is a contradiction of terms. Education has a general connotation of an institution or a formalized framework. Grassroots implies something from the people and outside of established institutional frameworks. Prakash and Esteva (1998) are two writers who intentionally avoid the use of the term education and have refused to classify as education the myriad forms of living, teaching, and learning at the grassroots. In their book, Escaping Education: Living and Learning at the Grassroots, they explored these traditions of living, teaching, and learning that they do not equate with education. Esteva, Prakash, and Stuchul (2005) explained their avoidance of the term, education, this way:

When learning . . . was redefined as education and the traditional freedom and capacity for learning in commons was ruled out or severely restricted, millions of people were transmogrified into the uneducated or undereducated, desperately in need of educational services, always scarce and insufficient for the majority . . . . Insomuch as the noun “education” imposes a completely passive dependence on the system that provides education, people are substituting this noun with the verbs “to learn” and “to study.” Unlike the noun, these verbs establish the autonomous capacity for building creative relationships with others and with nature, relationships that generate knowledge and wisdom. People are again acknowledging that to know is a personal experience, and that the only way to know, to widen the competencies for living, is to learn from the world, not about the world. (pp. 18, 28)

Their work has been inspired by Illich (1971), who believed that educational institutions interfered with the ability of people, particularly the poor, to “take control of their own learning” (p. 8). He questioned the assumptions that children belong in school and that school should be the primary context for learning and teaching. He saw the educational institution of schools as a product of industrial society and the culture of bureaucracy, consumerism, and increased growth and production. Illich advocated for alternatives to education rather than educational alternatives. Holt (1976), a leader in the homeschool movement for many years, also raised similar questions and worked for many years to support alternatives to formalized education.

Although in this dissertation I raise a number of issues about the institutional system of education, I chose to retain the term education in the title and throughout the dissertation. I gave considerable thought to what to call these initiatives since I could find no general term in use. I looked to the sites themselves, the kind of work they do, and how they talk about their work. Two of the three sites in this research, CCLC and Headwaters, do not offer degrees or certificates and emphasize more of an informal approach to sharing locally-based knowledge and skills. At YIHS, which is a diploma-granting high school, people spoke of educare, the Latin root of the word, education, which means to draw out, as they described their approach to working with students. At YIHS, the focus is not on filling the students with knowledge, but on calling forth and supporting the talents that already live within each student. Teachers do so in a way that honors the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of living. These sites do not fit a traditional educational framework, and yet, people at all three of the sites used the term, education, in referring to their work. Other terms that I considered, such as learning communities, were awkward grammatically, did not fully encompass the diversity of the projects, and were not used at all of the sites. Although the use of the term, education, is a compromise because of the institutional framework associated with it, I nevertheless chose to use it in this dissertation. It is used to refer to an interactive process of learning and teaching that takes place in a variety of contexts and for a variety of purposes. Grassroots education is not meant to imply a formalized system of any kind.

  • Rural

What defines an area or a town as rural has been frequently debated (National Agricultural Library, 2006). The most common definition of rural comes from the U.S.Census Bureau (2002) based on the 2000 census, which defines rural as an area “outside urbanized areas, in open country or in communities with less than 2,500 inhabitants or where the population density is less than 1,000 inhabitants per square mile” (para. 5). The census classified 25% of the total population as rural and 97.5% of the total U. S. land as rural. Of the nation’s school districts, 40% are in rural areas (Johnson & Strange, 2007). One fourth of America’s school children attend public schools in rural areas or towns less than 25,000, and 14% go to school in towns fewer than 2,500 people (Beeson & Strange, 2000).

  • Success

Ernst and Statzner (1994) suggested that definitions of success should not be limited to traditional measures such as test scores or grades. They argued that “success is a socially constructed and culturally embedded variable” (p. 202). Ernst and Statzner’s approach to success guided this dissertation research on success and sustainability in grassroots education initiatives. This study was designed to examine the factors that contributed to success at each site and the factors that supported the sustainability of that success. Success was examined from three perspectives in this dissertation: the perspectives of the participants at each site, my perspective as a researcher, and a comparison with qualities of success described in the literature by other researchers and practitioners.

  • Sustainability

The term, sustainable, has come into frequent use in recent years in both the general culture and in academia. Indian physicist and ecofeminist, Shiva (1992), explained that the term, sustainability, is derived from sustain, which means to “support, bear weight of, hold up, enable to last out, give strength to, endure without giving way” (p. 191). Applied to education and this dissertation, this means learning contexts that are designed in such a way to continue to serve a community for the long term. Marshall (1997), former director of the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, spoke of “dynamically sustainable learning communities” (p. 177). She saw the foundation for educational sustainability as contexts that allow for the continual creation and exchange of knowledge. This involves an understanding of human learning systems as dynamic, adaptive, organic, and generative. Sustainable learning systems are “inherently designed to renew themselves and to grow and change” (Marshall, p. 181). Smith and Williams (1999) added that the core value of educational sustainability is relationships between people and the world. Tickell (1996) described a similar understanding of education and sustainability. He described interconnectedness as the root of sustainability in education. Interconnectedness can mean many things: interconnectedness between and across disciplines, between school and community, between organizations, and between the community and the local environment. In this study, I examined the sustainability of grassroots education initiatives, which included how they are designed to endure over time and to build interconnections among people and the environment. Initiatives in this research were established 9 to 34 years ago.

  • School

“School” is a word that for most people carries a connotation of a building with classrooms where students sit at desks and receive instruction from a teacher (Martin, 2000). Many people involved with grassroots educational alternatives intentionally choose not to call themselves a school because they do not want the traditional conceptions of education and learning to be associated with their endeavor (Martin, 2000; Parson, 1999). They believe that in order to create a large change in educational institutions, a new descriptive name is required. Learning centers and learning cooperatives are both examples of this choice. In this dissertation, I use the word, school, in the spirit of Martin’s definition, which says that “school implies those places where people gather intentionally to learn (with no implications of what, why, or how)” (p. 2).

  • Community

Throughout this paper, the term, community, is used. In some places, this refers to a town or part of a town. It also refers to an association of people that provides the relational caring and sense of belonging that connects people with the world beyond themselves (Parson, 1999). These associations often form around a shared purpose. Community, of either definition, provides the diverse human interactions that make life interesting, meaningful, and enjoyable. Peck (1987) has emphasized that in community, a collective energy forms that is both stronger and different than the individual. For him, the guiding principle in community is unity in diversity.

Significance of the Study

A study of success and sustainability in grassroots education initiatives is of value to scholars who are interested in the areas of grassroots education, rural education, educational change and innovation, and paradigm shift and sustainability. Limited knowledge and research are available on grassroots education initiatives, rural education, and qualitative aspects of success in educational contexts. This dissertation research addressed these gaps in the research and scholarly literature. The research provided information about the types of grassroots initiatives, their roles in rural communities, and their strengths and challenges in achieving success and sustainability. This information can inform the work of scholars, researchers, and policy makers, as well as practitioners.

This study also offers important insights and information for practitioners who are involved in new or existing grassroots initiatives and for practitioners involved in educational innovation and change in a variety of contexts. People at all of the sites in this study have a desire to learn from those in other initiatives in order to strengthen their own organization. In the rural area where I live, two grassroots education groups have formed in the last 2 years, a learning cooperative and a folk school, and people in both have expressed an interest in the outcomes of this research. The challenges of starting an initiative are many, and groups have a desire to learn from the experience of other initiatives (Schaefer & Voors, 1996).

In numerous fields such as agriculture, economics, and environmental studies, concepts of sustainability are being discussed and designs explored that are based in living systems (Edwards, 2005). New operational paradigms are emerging in many of these fields, as well. Mainstream education is operating heavily within a system designed in the mid-1800s. People involved in grassroots education initiatives are exploring educational approaches outside of the dominant educational paradigm. As such, they offer seeds of change for the future. This study can contribute to the dialogue about the role of grassroots education initiatives in educational change and in the creation of a sustainable way of life. This can impact practice, as well as policy.


This chapter presented an introduction to the topic of grassroots education initiatives, the need for research on these initiatives, particularly in rural areas, and the nature of this dissertation research. The following terms were defined in this chapter: grassroots education, visionary grassroots education initiatives, education, rural, success, sustainability, school, and community. Grassroots education initiatives are projects that are initiated by local people without government or corporate influence and that seek to address local learning. In the last 2 decades, grassroots organizations have proliferated in the U.S., along with a renaissance in ideas around community-based learning (Miller, 2000). The current system of education in the U.S. was designed in the 1800s to meet the needs of industrial society. Some authors have expressed concern that many of the features of the system do not serve present needs (Clinchy, 2007; Miller, 2000; Sarason, 2000; Senge et al., 2000). As a result, a number of educators have described a growing place for grassroots education alternatives outside of the existing system (e.g., Ellis, 2000; Hutchinson, 2004; Miller, 2000; Schlechty, 2001).

The need for grassroots initiatives has been clearly expressed by a number of education advocates, and communities are seeking to create them. This dissertation research was motivated by the question: How can communities be supported in their endeavors to provide educational alternatives that are successful and sustainable? This research was an appreciative study designed to address these research questions: What are the key elements that create success in grassroots education initiatives? What features or activities support the sustainability of success in grassroots education initiatives? The research responded to three gaps in the literature: a) research on grassroots education initiatives is limited; b) research on qualitative aspects of success in alternative environments is minimal (Gallego et al., 2005); c) much of the research on current reform and innovation has been in urban schools, resulting in a paucity of research that examines how rural communities are using the local environment in educational innovations (Bauch, 2001; Sherwood, 2000). Rural issues and innovations are largely underrepresented in the national education dialogue, even though 40% of the nation’s school districts are in rural areas (Johnson & Strange, 2007). The findings from this study can be used to provide support for rural communities and grassroots organizations seeking to create innovative educational alternatives. This research can inform the work of scholars, researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners.

This dissertation continues with a review of the literature in chapter 2, which includes a discussion of rural issues related to education, the philosophical and pedagogical background of grassroots education, the reasons for the emergence of grassroots education, the research that supports general characteristics of grassroots education, and a description of types of grassroots initiatives. The literature review also includes a section of research and theory related to success and sustainability in schools and organizations with similarities to grassroots education. Chapter 3 contains a description of the cultures of inquiry that inform this study and the research methodology. I present qualitative data and analyses in chapters 4 and 5. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of the research findings in chapter 6.



A number of education advocates are encouraging teachers, parents, students, and others to oppose the high-stakes testing agenda and the corporatization of schooling by supporting grassroots education initiatives that build community, support democracy and social justice, integrate the local environment, and create innovative, new visions for education (e.g., Hutchinson, 2004; Miller, 2000). Grassroots initiatives in rural areas are the focus of this research, and the literature review begins with a discussion of the definition of rural, the strengths and challenges of rural areas, and educational issues in rural areas. The rural discussion is followed by an overview of the key influences on the development of grassroots education and a description of the central features of grassroots education. The chapter continues with information about the philosophical, historical, scientific, cultural, and pedagogical reasons or catalysts for grassroots education. Because grassroots education has strongly emerged only in the last decade and a half in the United States (Miller, 2000), understanding the reasons for its emergence and the issues addressed by grassroots education is foundational for looking at success and sustainability in these initiatives. After building a comprehensive picture of the inspirations and catalyzing factors for grassroots education, four types of initiatives will be described: learning cooperatives, community learning centers, folk schools, and innovative alternative schools.

Grassroots education is a hybrid phenomenon happening at the intersection of schooling and community development. The literature review continues with an examination of the research on success and sustainability in innovative schools and community development projects that can shape an understanding of the key elements that may contribute to success and sustainability in grassroots education. Research that specifically addresses success and sustainability in grassroots education initiatives was not located, and this dissertation research will strive to address that gap.

The Rural Context

Rural America is a term applied to a wide variety of places. Johnson (1999) described the diversity of rural settings this way:

Rural America is a deceptively simple term for a remarkably diverse collection of places and things; vast swaths of wheat and corn; auto plants on the outskirts of towns along I-75 in Kentucky and Ohio; catalog distribution centers along country lanes; small villages on pristine northern lakes; the cool mountainous forests of the Pacific northwest; and the flat humid spread of Florida’s everglades. (p. 12)

Rural areas are often pictures of extremes and contradictions. They can have high rates of poverty or be extremely wealthy. They can have no minorities or high numbers of minorities. Rural areas can be in decline or experiencing what Johnson (1999) has called the rural rebound. People in rural areas often rely on natural resources to support the economy and yet allow for environmental degradation that diminishes those resources. A surprising fact about rural America is the cultural and racial diversity. Almost half of the Native American population lives in rural areas, along with 15% of African Americans and 9% of Hispanics (Center for Rural Strategies). The following are general characteristics of rural communities:

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