As sources of ideation and inspiration, rural teachers are well situated to see opportunities to better the school for students, families, and the community alike. After Covid-19 forced students to adhere to challenging restrictions, Jan Mathews, a science teacher at Sycamore Middle School in Gridley, CA, noticed that students didn’t have a comfortable place to eat outside. "The space we had was crowded, and the grassy area got muddy in the winter and had no shade in the summer.”
Luckily, through her mentorship at Chico State’s CLASS Program, Mathews heard about RSC's Celia B. Godsil Grants in Place Fellows program and applied, explaining “teachers are used to being told no, so it’s nice to be told yes.” After finding out she was awarded the fellowship, Mathews teamed up with her students to kick off a transformative, place-based project at the middle school.
Beyond creating an outdoor space at school, Mathews saw this project as an opportunity for students to have an active role in forging a legacy. She shared with her students, “Sometimes your legacy isn’t worldwide or countrywide; it’s just your own - so when you walk back on campus you can say, ‘That lunch area didn’t used to look like that. I worked on that and changed it to make it how it looks today!’ That’s a legacy.”
Mathews continues that she “did not realize how powerful that was to a young person…There’s a generational footprint that’s been left there. It’s changing [things] in a good way and remembering what’s there and making it better for whoever is there now. I think that’s what education is, really.”
““Sometimes your legacy isn’t worldwide or countrywide; it’s just your own - so when you walk back on campus you can say, ‘That lunch area didn’t used to look like that. I worked on that and changed it to make it how it looks today!’ That’s a legacy."”
This project provides students with new benches and tables, artwork, and much-needed shade outside. But at it's root, this project is an act of collective memory building to renew a sense of community shared between all involved.
Not long after launching the project, the school administration pitched in to help. Then, the larger Gridley community began lending a hand. “I was reiterating this to someone else and they said, ‘well, what else do you need? I want to get involved!’ I said we needed shade umbrellas and they replied, ‘Okay, send me a bill. Pick whatever you want and send me a bill.’”
Mathews worked with her student volunteers to begin construction. Students had an active hand in each aspect of the process, from planning to voting on the design and artist for the space’s mural. When the project’s biggest build day arrived on a Saturday, students, families, teachers, and administrators all joined in. Mathews’ initial aspiration has grown to a community-wide project exemplifying the power of place in rural schools.
Reflecting on the experience, Mathews encourages others to act on their ideas: “Pick something that you care about and don’t be deterred - the answer is always no until you ask.”
RSC's Grants in Place programs are offered in coordination with our Regional Hub partners. Read about our Northern California Hub.