Elsie Ripley Clapp (1879–1965)
An expert in rural Progressive education in Kentucky and West Virginia, Elsie Ripley Clapp was director at the Arthurdale School in West Virginia; she documented her experiences in The Use of Resourcesin Education (1952) and Community Schools in Action (1939).
Elsie Clapp was born in the exclusive area of Brooklyn Heights, New York. Her father, William Gamwell Clapp, was a stockbroker and her mother, Sally Ripley Clapp, a gifted pianist. Clapp's life was shaped by the panic of 1893 (which destroyed her family's finances), by her rejection of the role of the Victorian woman, and by health problems.
She was educated at the Packer Collegiate Institute (1894–1899), Vassar College (1899–1903), and Barnard College, Columbia University (1908). She received a bachelor of arts degree in English from Barnard and a master's degree in philosophy from Columbia. Following graduation, Clapp began an extensive teaching career, having had previous experience at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary in Brooklyn, New York (1903–1907). She spent a short time at the Horace Mann School of Teachers College (1908–1909), and served as an editorial assistant for the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Method from 1910 to 1913, where she met the American educator and philosopher John Dewey. Clapp took numerous courses with Dewey at Columbia, serving as a teaching/graduate assistant for him on occasion. It was John Dewey who suggested that she explore work in rural Progressive education because he knew that Progressive education had been largely centered in university lab schools, private schools, and urban public schools.
Beginning work with a committee assigned to help the children of strikers in the Patterson Silk Workers Strike, her first job was to locate day care for the children. Through her work she met social activists Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Carla Tresca, and John Reed. Clapp's social consciousness was awakened to the plight of the worker. Resuming her teaching career, she moved to Charleston, South Carolina, to teach at Ashley Hall (1913–1914), and from there, Jersey City High School (1914–1915); Brooklyn Heights Seminary (1915–1916); the Milton Academy for Girls (1921–1922); the City and Country School in New York (1923–1924); and the Rosemary Junior School in Greenwich, Connecticut (1924–1929). Through work at the City and Country School and the Rosemary School, Clapp was able to begin serious implementation of Progressive education ideas. This was followed by the highlights of her career, the Ballard Memorial School (1929–1934) and Arthurdale (1934–1936). After leaving Arthurdale, Clapp edited the journal Progressive Education from 1937–1939. She spent the war years researching in the University of North Carolina libraries and Teachers College in preparation for writing The Use of Resources in Education. She also assisted in teaching a seminar on rural education at Teachers College in 1946. Clapp's later years are difficult to document, particularly after the publication of The Use of Resources in Education. Clapp wrote the book to inspire teachers to learn from her experiences in rural education; the book is best recognized for Dewey's foreword, one of his last published writings. The later years of Clapp's life are characterized by the health problems that began in her youth. She spent her final years in Exeter, New Hampshire.
Clapp considered her most important contribution to education the linking of the school with the community. This was a complex undertaking at Arthurdale, the first federal subsistence project of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. A pet project of Eleanor Roosevelt, Arthurdale was designed to improve the lives of displaced coal mining families in north central West Virginia. Eleanor Roosevelt believed a school modeled on the lines of Progressive education would best suit this community, and Elsie Clapp was recommended to become the director of school and community affairs. One of the first steps included integrating recreation and health concerns with the goals of the school. Clearly evident in her approach to education in the Arthurdale community is a central focus on Appalachian culture as the basis for creating self-identity and understanding. This embodied Dewey's belief that community was the starting point for democracy–for Clapp the school served as the tool for bringing together shared interests and talent to benefit the entire community. Unfortunately, no people of color were selected to be a part of this new community due to politics, prejudice, and Jim Crow laws. Clapp and her cadre of progressive educators left Arthurdale in 1936 because of declining private support. Their departure ended one of the most interesting and intriguing progressive experiments in rural education.
CLAPP, ELSIE R. 1939. Community Schools in Action. New York: Viking.
CLAPP, ELSIE R. 1952. The Use of Resources in Education. New York: Harper and Row.
PERLSTEIN, DAN and STACK, SAM. 1999. "Building a New Deal Community: Progressive Education at Arthurdale." In Schools of Today, Schools of Tomorrow, ed. Susan Semel and Alan Sadovnik. New York: Lang.
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