Educator Elsie Clapp was born on November 13, 1879, in Brooklyn Heights. She was influenced by progressive educator John Dewey, who believed that schools should have a direct impact on the communities they serve.
In 1934, Clapp brought this philosophy with her to West Virginia as director of the community school at Arthurdale. The Preston County town was the first of the nation’s New Deal subsistence homesteads. A pet project of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Arthurdale was intended to give unemployed miners and their families a fresh start.
Clapp believed that Arthurdale’s school should tap into the students’ rural heritage and prepare them for real-life situations. For instance, they learned how to measure lumber for houses and built fiddles and guitars to be played at community square dances.
Ultimately, though, her strategy was rejected. The school was refused accreditation because it didn’t meet state standards. Others criticized Clapp for failing to prepare students to live in the modern world. She left after only two years at Arthurdale, and Preston County took over the school. But, her community-based approach to education would later become much more widely adopted.