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Christian school could open in Fries

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Mountaintop Community Schools is looking at the former firehouse or bingo hall for a ‘one-room’ facility.

By SHAINA STOCKTON, Staff

FRIES — Members of Fries Town Council gathered on April 17 to hear a special presentation from Mountaintop Community Schools, a group that is interested in developing a non-denominational Christian private school in the town with a one-room schoolhouse structure.
In addition to seeking the town’s support, the group has requested that the school be allowed to use either the old Fries firehouse or the bingo hall as the schoolhouse.
In February, after several members of the Twin County community formed a group and spent months planning and researching the dynamics of private schools, the idea for Mountaintop Community Schools was unveiled to the public. Families who were interested in an alternative form of education were invited to the Joy Ranch Home for Children for a three-hour mock classroom session, where students and parents could get an idea of how the school would work.
“We are very passionate about what we’re doing. I see something here that could help [our town], and as we all know, it takes a community to raise kids. There’s no one person that does everything,” said Tony Felts, a Fries resident and a member of the school’s planning committee.
Felts — along with Lynn Funk of Mountaintop, Brent Carrick of Joy Ranch and Joy Ranch Acting Director Mary Hutchins — gave the council a brief overview of their school plan, and explained how the process would be carried out if they receive enough funding to move forward.
Each school will have three main focuses: multigrade class settings, mentoring opportunities and mastery learning approaches. “People imagine the one-room school model like the one in ‘Little House on the Prairie’… and researchers have discovered several benefits of this model,” said Carrick. “Until 1913, half of the children in our country were educated in one-room schools. Today, there are still one-room schools in sparsely populated areas, around 400 of them.”
One-room schools typically educate groups of children with various ages. Combining several grades into one classroom teaches older students important mentoring skills, organizers said. Aside from group studies, the committee explained that each student would have his or her own learning plan to follow during solo bouts of study time.
To keep class sizes small and manageable, Hutchins explained that Mountaintop wants to open schoolhouses in several different locations throughout the Twin Counties. “And, of course, the schools will look different from place to place,” she said.
“There is a lot of history in Fries, and when we think of the culture here, we think of the opportunities to teach and incorporate some of that culture in with the curriculum,” Felts said.
He explained that each of the schools would work in tandem to become part of the community through interaction with the locality, and passing on local traditions to the students. “We want to give back to the kids, and pass this on to the next generation.”  
The group explained that children would also be involved in the community, as learning would not just take place inside the schoolhouse. “We will give back,” Felts promised.
Included in the curriculums for the schools will be community-oriented projects that will teach students how they can make a positive difference for their neighbors.
Aside from support from the localities to build the schools, the group told council that it is researching funding opportunities so that tuition would be more affordable for the families who are interested in enrolling their children.
“Joy Ranch exists through our donors,” Hutchins said, and explained that Mountaintop Schools would operate in the same manner. “Every family that is involved with the school would be responsible to help. We would cut costs by having families act as volunteers. The youth would be involved with fundraising.”
“It wouldn’t be a community school if those who can’t afford it are shut out,” Carrick added.
The group added that they had put together a skeleton budget of $365,000 for three schools.

Council Questions
Following the presentation, council had the opportunity to address the group. “When they took Christ out of school, I didn’t like that, but there is more than one way to corral a horse,” said Mayor Gary Sumner. “If you build a community around a church, God blesses you.”
Vice Mayor Nancy Hawks told the group that her grandchildren were home-schooled, and she had seen the benefits of a personalized, Christian education. “My grandchildren were accepted to ivy league [colleges], but they chose a school based on their beliefs. They are a direct product of Christian education and homeschooling, and I’m in favor of both,” she said.
“How many schools are you planning on, in total?” asked council member Jerry McCormick.
“We are working on one in Galax and one here,” said Felts, with other locations under consideration.
Council also addressed several issues that would come up if the firehouse was used to contain the new school. “There would be some handicap issues,” one person noted.
However, the organizers believe that it would take a level of work and dedication to make the school possible.
“I don’t see why the firehouse can’t be a school. We need to make this affordable… but we will give back to this community… through clean-ups, projects… we will give back,” Felts said.
“Well, I think it’s a wonderful idea. You’ve got my support,” said McCormick.

What’s Next?
With the support of the other council members, both town officials and the Mountaintop Community Schools committee agreed to meet again with the Blue Ridge Crossroads Economic Development Authority (BRCEDA) — which owns the firehouse and bingo hall properties — and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) on April 29 at 1 p.m. at Crossroads Institute.
The meeting is public, according to a notice from BRCEDA published on April 21.