They both seem out of place. In the middle of a depressed coal mining town in Appalachia, in the center of a spacious room, the man with a soft Brooklyn accent does not fit in. Neither does the school he is sitting in — a homey, spacious two-story building surrounded on three sides by mountains.
He toys with his glasses, gently lifting them to his lips before he continues talking about his passion. It is 10:30 on a Saturday night, and Danny Greene is reflecting on his what he has done and what he still hopes to do.
The long hours at the school in David, Kentucky, are nothing new for Greene, who lives across the street and is almost always working in one of his many capacities — founder, math teacher, father figure, volunteer director, fund raiser, visionary.
We are at the bottom of a hollow in the former mining town of David. Once the shining proof of the “benevolence” of American mining companies, David now is just another depressed small town in Appalachia.
Most stories about Greene focus on the good he has done in over 30 years in eastern Kentucky. You will hear about how Greene, a New Yorker with a soft Brooklyn accent, left his previous life behind because of the passion he felt to do good in Appalachia. People highlight the second chance he has given to thousands of kids who left public school, his community involvement, the beautiful school he built and the hard-working staff he inspires.
But when I visited last year I learned that, even after 29 years of hard work and national recognition, the David School still faces many problems.
The school has an excellent science classroom, but had nobody to teach the students science. And the school lacked other things, too: a computer teacher, a librarian, a guidance counselor, and a principal among them.
Greene acknowledged that the David School could use more resources with which to hire staff, and said the practice of having many volunteer teachers creates a high degree of turnover and means the school often gets untrained teachers.
But although he will continue to work hard as he faces many of the same obstacles he has encountered for the 28 years of the school’s existence, Greene looked back with pride at his many accomplishments:
“I think the David School has made in a rather quiet way a true systemic change in the region,” he said.
No longer a model town
A 1950s short film follows a coal-mining family around David as the members of the family live happy and productive lives. Dad and son go to work as daughter goes to school and mom goes shopping at the company store, all under the benevolent eye of the coal company. The narrator informs the audience of the many valuable uses of coal, and the dominant message of the film seems to be, “Gee, isn’t coal swell?”
“They live near their work in their little town, built around their mines in the hills of Kentucky,” the narrator intones as the film ends.
And then, some years later, prosperity left along with the coal company.
While a student at Fordham University, Greene took his first trip to Kentucky in 1968. He did not see the town as the film had portrayed it. The people left behind by the coal companies often suffered from black-lung disease, and until today, the region has experienced chronic problems with unemployment, illiteracy, alcoholism and drug addiction.
“I saw a tumbleweed town,” Greene said. “I saw sewage running down the street.”
He told stories of this first trip to the region and of the major influences in his life, of his early experiences and of the care and inspiration he received from his parents.
“It is for all these reasons that I felt driven to make a difference,” he said.
Then he looked around at the beautiful school building and at the audience made up of 40 volunteers who have come to work at the school to which Greene has dedicated his life.
“I never envisioned all of this.”
Achieving the impossible
Greene seems to delight in calmly, almost unthinkingly doing the impossible.
At a fund-raiser in New York he saw a woman, had the thought that he would marry her, talked to her for two minutes, and did not see her or contact her for another year.
Today they are married with five children.
“We do love it in eastern Kentucky very much,” Greene said.
Greene tells a similar story about how he got the David School built. He began planning the school in 1972 and opened the doors with 10 students in 1974. For many years, the school operated out of the old general store building, which is now condemned.
The coal company owned all of David before it left and sold back the land — but not the mineral rights. So when Greene bought an undeveloped stretch of land at the bottom of a hollow on which to build a new school, he faced a significant problem — there still was coal under the soil.
He went ahead anyway, breaking ground for the school without telling the dignitaries who did the ground-breaking that he did not own the mineral rights. The coal company was less than pleased and considered mining the coal, at one point filing for a permit to mine.
“It was clear though that the school was committed to build at all odds,” Greene said.
With the help of Legal Aid and others, Greene discovered that schools in Kentucky had eminent domain. Today, the beautiful two-story school that opened in the mid-1990s sits on a gorgeous stretch of land, with mountains rising up on three sides — another victory over the impossible.
The Rev. Johnnie E. Ross is chairman of the Floyd County Board of Education, and he is also a member of the board of directors at the David School.
“If this is where kids end up that fall through the cracks, I certainly hope that more kids fall through the cracks,” Ross said as he looked around the David School.
Ross’s description of the David School’s mission is apt. An alternative school of sorts, the David School is a private, nondenominational, tuition-free high school. It serves kids who did not succeed in public school, either because they dropped out or ran into other problems.
Students study shop and domestic science as well as math and writing, and they help cook, clear the table (the students and staff eat together for family-style breakfasts and lunches), and keep the school clean (the school does not have janitors). They also work on projects around the school; one day almost the entire school put on orange vests and went out to collect trash along the roadside, gathering enough to fill over 70 bags.
With an enrollment of about 70 students and small class sizes, the David School provides individual attention to students who might not have received it otherwise.
Eddybanks Kuss, a bright sophomore when I met him last year, said that he did not get along with the kids at public school and now loves the David School.
“I think it makes it better for us because we can learn at our own pace,” Kuss said.
Kuss is not the only person who praised the David School for the individual attention students receive.
Becky Garrett has two sons, John and James, who attend the school, and her affection for the David community is obvious. Garrett said she is delighted with the ethic the school has instilled in her children.
“I think the David School gives kids vision,” she said. “They teach my kids the same morals that I have.”
Learning while serving
Kentucky native Augie Hale took last year off from Georgia Southern University to volunteer at the David School. He did not expect to be teaching much when he signed up, but last spring he led guitar, health, and physical education classes.
“It’s helped me grow and it’s been very real,” Hale said. “I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t quite realize how hard it was going to be.”
Not only did Hale teach, he also drove students to and from school, helped supervise volunteer groups, and coached the school’s soccer team.
Volunteers like Hale shape what the school looks like from year to year, as science teachers and librarians and computer instructors come and go. The David School could use several more volunteers, but it still largely relies on the hope that people will fall in love with the school (“I was so taken by the whole place,” Hale said of his first visit) and decide to come back.
One source of potential long-term volunteers is the collection of college students who volunteer during breaks from school each year. About 40 volunteers from three universities were there with me, helping with maintenance, odd jobs and projects around the school. The groups that shuttle in and out are an integral part of school life — the grounds include cabins to house them and the students almost unquestioningly accept the 40 people invading their school.
The Rev. Edmond Dunn, a Roman Catholic priest and professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Iowa, has been coming to David with volunteer groups for 17 years. As he has led groups to serve and learn in David, where the school’s motto is “Learning While Serving,” Dunn has formed an attachment to the school.
“It’s become a very important part of my life,” he said.
Facing significant problems
Despite all the praise people have for the David School, there is still significant room for the school to improve.
One of the two older nuns who teach at the school, Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and former principal Emma Kriz is in her 19th year at the David School. She said she is proud that the school has continued, but added that she would not say that it has flourished. The new school can accommodate 100 students, meaning the school is operating well below capacity. And she said the David School once had more volunteers, often people well-trained as teachers. Now, the school is substantially understaffed and volunteers are sometimes thrown into teaching unexpectedly.
“These individuals do need often a lot more support and guidance in curriculum and classroom management,” Greene said.
Greene acknowledged that the constantly shifting pool of teachers also poses problems.
“At times, we do come short in one area and another area gets strengthened,” Greene said, although he added that the school always focuses on the core areas of reading and math.
Greene said many of the problems stem from funding concerns, and with more money the school could hire more teachers and then increase enrollment.
Short-term, often-undertrained teachers have also contributed to concerns about academic standards.
Here, though, Greene said he is pleased with how the David School is doing. The school has been working to make the academic work more rigorous. Juniors are now required to take the ACT Assessment, and over the past few years more graduates are choosing to attend college. In order to receive a diploma at the David School, students must have concrete post-secondary plans (college, vocational training, or a job), but few kids go on to four-year colleges.
The school’s problems extend to the athletics program. There is no basketball team even though the school is in basketball-crazy Kentucky. Hale said the school lacks the faculty to support more programs, but said he believes improving the athletics program at the David School is crucial.
“[The students are] just as behind physically and athletically as they are academically,” Hale said.
Confronting systemic problems
As the David School continues its educational efforts in Eastern Kentucky, it still must confront many regional problems. For years, the school has worked to improve the community — helping to build a park, picking up trash and running adult literacy programs.
But the region still must deal with illiteracy and ignorance passed down from one generation to another. In the public schools, for example, Ross said one of the biggest problems is that parents do not feel welcome in school.
“If you don’t have a good educational background, you’re intimidated by academia,” Ross said.
But he added that the David School has successfully worked to combat this problem. Adult education has been a priority of the David School throughout its existence, and the school runs adult literacy programs, teaches adults basic skills like balancing a checkbook, and brings families to the school with their students some evenings as part of a new program.
The school still faces the problems of absenteeism and of students who do not graduate the David School, but Kriz said she believes the problem is with students who are not interested with school in general, not students who have a particular problem with the David School.
The difficulties are not all educational — the region also has severe problems with drugs and alcohol. Greene said the David School aggressively fights against addiction and abuse, and added that some David School students have been in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
“We’re not in denial as most public schools are,” Greene said.
Hale said the school works to educate students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
“They’re always trying to think of new things to change the kids’ minds and show them the right way,” Hale said.
Moving toward the impossible
Neither the lack of funding nor the many societal problems built into life in eastern Kentucky can obscure all the good the David School has done.
“I think we make the students comfortable here so they open to learning,” Kriz said.
And Garrett, proud mother of two David School students, was delighted when she reflected on the 210 acres of school land and the beautiful school building.
“When you see this school nestled in the mountains, I think it’s just an awesome sight,” she said. “I wish we could carbon copy this school and send it all over the state.”
The school is continuing to face the impossible, looking to break down even more of the obstacles to success that it has fought for so many years. Part of that effort may include more publicity telling people what the David School does and showing people what the school is really like. Kriz said such publicity would help combat the negative impression some people have of the school, which they believe is solely for slow kids and drug addicts.
“We have to do more bragging,” Kriz said.
The recognition the school does get comes largely from the work done in the impossibly long hours put in by Hale, Kriz and others. But likely the king of long hours is Greene, who is wrapping up the conversation and preparing to go home to his family at 11:20 on a Saturday night. He has finished talking about his goals for standardized testing and for a curriculum focused more on environmental issues. And he is saying how heartening it is to run into alumni of the David School, and to know that the school has served a couple thousand of students to date.
Back around the time he first came to Kentucky, Greene was not sure how long he would stay, but he said there always seemed to be another need for the next year. Through it all, he said he knows the road he has traveled has not always been smooth.
“I feel very capable now in telling people things not to do in trying to start a school,” Greene said.
Despite the many struggles, Greene still is here all these years later, after working tirelessly in education in the hopes of making David, Kentucky, something more of a model town once again. There is more impossible work ahead — there are more plans, more dreams, and probably more failures.
But armed with a dream of education and a pocketful of pebbles with which to take down Goliaths including ignorance, poverty and substance abuse, Greene said he is glad to see the beneficiaries of his attempts to improve life in eastern Kentucky.
“I’m proud of our students, because no one has twisted their arm to go back to school,” Greene said. “They get up every morning and decide they’re going to take advantage of this renewed opportunity to have an education.” n