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Oak Tree School Remembered

posted Apr 2, 2015, 2:16 PM by Kristin Snell   [ updated Apr 2, 2015, 2:24 PM ]

by Jeff Adams, Executive Director—North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center

In 1975, a group of recently minted contractors on the San Juan Ridge — assisted by, at times, more than 100 local residents — took on an audacious project to build the original Oak Tree School campus. The community faced a host of challenges throughout the process: opposition by union leaders for hiring local rather than union employees; independently sourcing all of the materials and equipment to construct the school; having to quickly learn a host of state and local laws to ensure the project’s regulatory compliance; and internal debates over the structure and content of the school curriculum.

Despite all of that, our community still managed to build the school. Then, on April 16, 1977 — only four months after opening — almost all of the buildings comprising the Oak Tree School campus burned to the ground.

In 2014 the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center received a grant from Cal Humanities to document the story of Oak Tree School. In the telling of this story, the project is also exploring the current state of education on the San Juan Ridge. Following a series of special events, the project will culminate with an exhibition at the 30th annual Sierra Storytelling Festival on July 17 to 19, 2015.

The story of Oak Tree School emerged as a significant event in many of the interviews we conducted in our initial Cal Humanities-funded project, A Landscape Full of Stories (still on view at our website). Interviewees referred to the event as a pivotal moment in Ridge history and community building, and, for the younger generation, as a critical aspect of their unique experience growing up on the Ridge.

Yet, despite the significance of the Oak Tree School project and the commitment to public education revealed in these interviews, some current residents have been choosing to leave the public school system to send their children to Charter Schools in town, or choosing to home study. Such changes lead us to ask: what were the enduring legacies of the back-to-the-land movement on Ridge education? Why, after such tremendous effort, investment and successes are some current residents seeking different alternatives for educating their children, and how does that affect our sense of community in this rural area?

The construction of Oak Tree School was nothing short of a radical experiment in community building, local politics and grass roots education. While the impetus behind the building of the School grew out of the back-to-the-land ethos, its construction and operation brought about unprecedented cross-cultural collaborations—and at times conflicts— that have had a lasting influence on the Ridge community. The story of Oak Tree School invites us to explore what education means to different people and how education can be a site for community and social transformation.

On April 11, we will host an open and free event — "Oak Tree School Remembered" — at the Oak Tree Lodge. Representatives of the original construction crew will be on hand to share some stories. We are also inviting others in the community to come prepared to share a five- to ten-minute anecdote about that experience. We will be recording the evening and sharing some of the stories as part of the comprehensive exhibition to be unveiled in July. Residents may also submit a story or photographs at northcolumbiaschoolhouse.org/oaktreeschool. Doors will open at 7:00 p.m. and the event will begin at 7:30 p.m. Child care will be provided courtesy of the FRC.

If you have any artifacts, journal entries, or photographs from the construction of Oak Tree School, would like to share your story about the construction of the school and the subsequent events, or are interested in how you can contribute to this project, please contact project director, Jeff Adams, at (530) 265-2826.

This project is made possible with support from Cal Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.

Photo caption: Concrete Pour at Oak Tree School. Photo credit: Hank Meals