The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Education Makes Contact With the New World

on January 19, 2017

As you know it’s very rare that I find news about something good happening in public education. But yesterday I read an article about a project in my home town, Portland, called PLACE, which stands for People Leading Across City Environments. That project is so far in line with my own beliefs about education that I couldn’t believe I had never heard about it before.

I will describe the program below and give my opinions about it afterward, as usual.


For the first time many Portland young people who are high school students are participating in real world learning experiences as the result of a youth-leadership program called PLACE. The program was instituted at Catlin Gabel School, a private school, but later made available to young people from all schools for a modest fee. So far students from two dozen public and private schools have joined the program and participated in projects on everything from eliminating food insecurity to improving neighborhood walkability.

Since it was created in 2010, PLACE has been using teaching methods that are very different from the norm. Its emphasis is on project-based, interdisciplinary, and inquiry-driven learning for diverse groups of students. Through it they learn research and community-engagement skills that ordinarily are taught only in college courses. As a result students produce professional quality reports that have been submitted to various public organizations and accepted as accurate and  useful.

Originally, PLACE was a summer program for Catlin Gabel students only, but now it offers urban study classes during the regular school year for high school students from around the city. It has also trained some young people to lead community forums and to write publishable articles about community change.

Recently, PLACE moved its official site from Catlin Gabel to a storefront building in a socially and economically mixed urban neighborhood. In addition to joining the PLACE program, students may come to the site for after-school tutoring, help in writing college applications, and writers’ workshop.

In addition to its Portland activities, PLACE programs are beginning to spread to other cities across the country, attempting to bring more authentic learning and deeper engagement to more students. Already there are active programs in Washington, DC, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Atlanta, Georgia. Although most of those programs are sponsored by private schools they are open to students across their communities, just as they are in Portland.

According to students who have participated in PLACE, the skills learned are powerful and practical. Not only do they help with later college courses, they also teach skills useful in a range of jobs in the real world.

Another significant feature of the PLACE program is its emphasis on bringing together students from various schools and different socio-academic backgrounds. For all students this new approach to learning provides benefits well beyond more customary classes. One of the early joiners says, “PLACE” has morphed me into a different person. Before this, I didn’t know how I could engage with my community. This project taught me how to reach out, how to organize. It taught me actual skills I will need in life—how to conduct myself in an interview, how to present myself to people who have the power and ability to make something happen. Nothing in [regular] school is this engaging.”

I have to say that everything I read in this article pleased me. My only suggestion is that PLACE be moved into public schools where it would be more accessible to all students. I’m not sure why that hasn’t yet happened already and why I’ve heard nothing about it before. The skeptic in me suspects it is because a traditional program would have to be removed in order for PLACE to be brought in. Also, PLACE would soon be in such demand that other courses would have to be eliminated, too. Those things would be a harsh blow to all the education “experts” who claim that algebra, chemistry, and a foreign language are absolutely necessary to prepare all students for “college and the workplace”  They would have to admit that they were wrong and that the 21st century calls for new ideas and new practices in our schools.

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