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The makeshift “classroom” inside the main building of the Joy Ranch Home for Children buzzed with excitement on Saturday as parents joined in with students for an “observation learning” activity.
This was just one of the activities that was scheduled during the three-hour mock classroom demonstration for Mountaintop Community Schools, a planned non-denominational Christian school that a group of parents and community members hope to begin in several areas throughout the Twin Counties.
Pens scratched furiously against the mock quiz sheets as they quickly recalled as many facts as they could about famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell, based on a two-minute video they had been shown earlier.
Surprisingly, a lot of blanks were filled: He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland: check.
He invented a wheat-husking machine at the age of 12 to help his neighbor’s flour milling business: check.
He invented the metal detector: check.
When Brent Carrick of Joy Ranch, who served as a teacher for the demo, asked the room how many got eight or more, several kids and their parents proudly shot their hands up.
“This almost makes me want to sign up!” joked one parent.
An alternative to traditional public school systems, the private school would provide additional resources for homeschool families and families who are seeking a faith-based educational program for their children.
To give the community an idea of their plans for the school, the group designed the demonstration and invited children and their parents to observe and participate.
The group expected a good turnout for the meeting, as they had heard a lot of interest from the community through emails, phone calls and surveys.
They weren’t disappointed: the rows of desks were full for the demonstration, as well as the chairs around the perimeter of the room for parents. Rows kept scooting over for more chairs until no more could fit in the room.
Mary Hutchins, acting director for Joy Ranch and a member of the community group, began with a short address to the audience. “There are several of us who have been working with this group for a long time, and we have a true passion for this school,” she said.
Lynn Funk, another parent participant in the group, had told The Gazette earlier that the idea began more than two years ago, when people met with one another and found that they shared the same desire for an alternative educational option for their children.
Together, they met and explored the possibility of starting, funding and accrediting a private school system that would allow traditional, faith-based learning options that have been lost in modern-day school systems.
“We have so many ideas for this school, one of them being a classroom where children in grades K-12 would all share one room,” Hutchins explained, noting that this would be the main idea explored through Saturday’s demonstration. She further explained that each child would be given their own lesson plans to follow, but would also work together during parts of the day to encourage student mentoring, teamwork and hands-on learning through fun exercises.
The school would follow the common principles practiced by the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), which is the core beliefs and characteristics that make up the CES Benchmark. Principles include concepts such as learning how to utilize the mind to learn different concepts, depth over coverage with a “less is more” attitude about learning, overall grades that apply for all students, personalized learning experiences, “student-as-worker/teacher-as-coach” learning structure, demonstrations of mastery, a code of decency and trust, a commitment to the entire school, resources dedicated to teaching and learning and an overall democracy and equity.
To keep classrooms small and manageable (at around 15-20 students per classroom), she explained that the school would operate in multiple locations throughout the Twin Counties. Woodlawn, downtown Galax and Fries have already been looked at as potential locations.
Following Hutchins’ introduction, Carrick showed a video clip of the TV show “Little House on the Prairie” to the audience to give them an example of a traditional one-room schoolhouse. “In America, schools like that were the norm until the 1920s, and to this day, there are still 400 one-room schoolhouses in the country,” he said.
He noted to parent observers that the school’s goal would be to focus on four main concepts of learning: interactivity, fun, mentoring and mastery — all things he would demonstrate in the classroom that day.
“In this school, there will be music, there will be singing, there will be memory-building activities,” he said.
The hours before lunch would be reserved for the more difficult “mastery” class sessions, and a series of fun hands-on activities would be given to students in the afternoon when they typically begin to wind down. “Parents if you remember, the hardest part of your day was that class right after lunch, right?” Carrick asked, and received emphatic nods in response.
As he moved into the demonstration, he began by working with the students on the classic school subjects: state capitals, U.S. presidents and multiplication tables.
Carrick explained that the emphasis on some of these key subjects are not about grades, but about simply mastering the concept. “Everyone knows the first president of the United States,” he said, and gestured to the class who shouted out “George Washington” in unison. “But what kind of a fact is that? A first grade fact? A second grade fact? No… it’s just a fact.”
Repetition of these facts, he explained, help students to retain information that they might otherwise forget. As he said this, some parents admitted quietly to each other that they had forgotten their list of presidents, as well as their state capitals.
Moving on to multiplication, Carrick instructed Gavin, an older student, to help 6-year-old William with his two times tables, while other students worked remedially with the highest levels they remembered.
As the system continued, Carrick noted that it would only get stronger, as the teacher would eventually learn where each student is academically.
When the class finished, he called on William to recite his twos. Gavin called out the questions, and smiled supportively as William got every one right.
“This type of activity is a great example of leadership skills. Because of this, Gavin is learning how to mentor, and how to teach someone something without just giving out the answer,” said Hutchins.
By taking down these barriers between classrooms, the group hopes to foster these types of positive relationships, and eliminate opportunities for bullying, as well. “If we have the big kids out there looking after the little kids, the older kids will feel that responsibility to protect, and in turn the younger kids will look up to their mentors and have a responsibility to them, as well,” said Carrick.
After a short break, Carrick led the class into another concept session called an “interactive weave,” where the class studied a series of subjects within one study period. As an example, he directed everyone’s attention to a board at the front of the room with the year 1876 as the theme for that afternoon’s study. The lesson dissolved into a combination of math, history, practical skills such as check-writing, art, music and presentation.
“We don’t believe in putting subjects in boxes and keeping them separate,” he explained, because in the real world, these subjects often tie together. “A lot of times, a student will actually learn a math concept while studying another subject,” he gave as an example.
In keeping with real world experience, Hutchins added that the groups would be consistently involved in a number of different community service projects and extracurricular activities.
Homeschool students would also be allowed to selectively participate in these curriculums, as well, said Carrick. “So the class would be used to having visitors throughout the day.”
Although the demonstration focused mostly on the group work, both Hutchins and Carrick both explained that the students would have time on their own to work on their own levels of education, which teachers would work closely with parents to develop and monitor throughout each year.
Hutchins stressed that the school would be dedicated to having each student graduate from the school, ready to attend the college of their choice. With a focus on aptitude, she added that students would be encouraged to study more in areas that may interest them as a potential career path.
When asked about cost, Hutchins told parents that a private school typically costs around $7,000 per student, but they hope to cut down on costs with parent volunteers for things like payroll, and grant funds from a number of resources that they are researching.
“We hope to start this in the fall, but if we’re not ready by then, we hope to at least have a successful homeschool co-op,” she said.
“But, if you’re applying for grants, would this school be regulated?” asked one parent.
“We will be looking at all regulations very closely,” Hutchins answered.
She acknowledged that, as a Christian school, it would be limited in its eligibility for funding. But, the school would not accept grant money under stipulations that it could not agree with.
“Would you be using any sort of [ready-made] curriculum?” someone else asked.
“We would definitely choose a curriculum, but we would possibly use different ones, as many homeschoolers tend to do. They’ll pick a math curriculum from one program, an English program from another…” Hutchins said.
Jumping the gun to answer another potential question, Hutchins said she’d been asked how parents can be sure that their children are getting the education they need.
She explained that, in addition to the goal of becoming an accredited school, organizers plan to work closely with students to assure that they are ready to attend the college of their choice once they graduate. “There are a number of options now, including dual credit classes through Wytheville Community College,” she added.
Although concept mastery levels are the primary focus, as opposed to traditional grade levels, students would still know where their child measures against other grades through the required end-of-the-year tests, such as the Stanford 10.
“This is a great alternative, especially for parents who want more of a say in their child’s education,” said a man in the audience. “There are things they are teaching in schools now that I don’t agree with, but I have no say in the matter.”
“I was excited about this, and I want to jump in and do whatever I can to help,” said a parent, who currently works for the public school system.
Hutchins said help is needed. The group has come much farther in its planning stages in recent months, with an official school name and a rough draft of a concept, but they still need funding, teachers, volunteers and suggestions from others who are interested in participating.
“I know we still have a lot of tweaking to do with this program, and we welcome any and all suggestions you have to offer us,” she said.
Hutchins hopes to see Mountaintop Community Schools begin opening locations in several areas as early as this fall.
• For more information about the school as plans are developed, or to find out how to help the effort, contact Hutchins or Carrick at (276) 236-557