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Gold Rush 

Hands-on sustainability in the Sierra foothills

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One of the many scars left by California gold miners up near Nevada City is a huge ditch. Whether or not the effort paid off financially, miners managed to chew their way around a 230-acre chunk of earth that has since produced—perhaps most richly for high school and college students—treasure no gold can buy: experiential education in peace, justice and sustainability.

The ditch-bordered site belongs to the Sierra Friends Center, established by Quakers; it now houses a residential community, a working farm and garden surrounded by woods, and a hands-on learning establishment called the Woolman Semester School.

"It's for teens who care passionately about the environment," says head of school Dorothy Henderson. "And it's for students who want to activate their education, make a difference in the world and experience living independently before they finish high school or go off to college."

Founded in the 1950s as a four-year residential high school known as the John Woolman School, this farm and garden in the Sierra foothills has evolved with the times while retaining its core values of social equality. (One of the founders, 96-year-old Mary Jorgensen, did civil rights work with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1961.)

Leaders suspended the John Woolman School in 2001 and, with the needs of the 21st-century student in mind, launched the Woolman Semester School in 2004. Students, Henderson says, "work, learn and eat with others. If they aren't learning in a classroom, they're involved in local sustainability, off on a research trip or on this land someplace. It's full immersion in community experience."

Students have tended vegetable crops, visited UC Davis to observe the butchering of pigs, built garden boxes for a local food bank, backpacked on the Yuba River and made public presentations in the community.

Earlier this year, the Woolman Semester School was honored by Green Voices Bay Area with an award for outstanding commitment to educating youth. For some students, that education includes a subjective quality in the realm of the heart, which Jenny Davis, of the Chapin School in New York, described in her Woolman commencement speech: "At Woolman, everything we do is centered around love, for both our own inviolate space and that of the community. It can really be that simple."

Perhaps some love of the land will aid the $10,000 grant received last month by Woolman's environmental science teacher, Jacob Holzberg-Pill, for an ambitious land-stewardship project. Holzberg-Pill plans to reclaim that abandoned mining ditch encircling the school property, regaining the gold of an unscarred landscape.

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