Story and Photos By Gina Malone
According to Sadie Kneidel, “the Montessori philosophy is that at middle-school age the brain is recalculating.” Kneidel is co-clerk and houseparent at Arthur Morgan School (AMS), a nonprofit boarding and day school in the Celo community near Burnsville.
Given that premise and the fact that traditional middle schools can be difficult for some students, AMS seeks a different approach to learning, one that harks back to its founding in 1962 by Elizabeth and Ernest Morgan. Theories of educators like Maria Montessori combine with Quaker values such as simple living and consensual decision making. The result is a progressive farm school where up to 27 students—in grades seven, eight and nine—live, work, create and learn together.
The school is staff-run, with no headmaster. “Students are literally involved in every aspect of running the school,” says teacher Claire Oliphant, “from cooking meals and building fences to harvesting vegetables and making decisions on curriculum.”
These internships also offer time to pursue artistic interests. “It’s a great place for creative students,” says teacher Natalie Monaghan, “because they are given a lot of freedom and choices compared to traditional school.”
A recent sunny autumn day found students engaged in hands-on learning all over the scenic hundred-acre campus: walking with field glasses to spot birds; rounding up and feeding the turkeys; wearing leather aprons in the forge as they fashioned a piece of iron into a poker for their outdoor oven; and sitting with sketchbooks drawing from nature.
“By varying the learning environment—often the students are outdoors—and including craft skills in our interdisciplinary curriculum,” says Monaghan, “we are giving our students the opportunity to engage all of their senses synergistically, which allows them to retain more of what they are learning and to have fun while doing so.”
The students agree. Seventh-grader Lillian Kline calls the AMS approach “more interesting than sitting in a classroom for seven hours straight.” Haven Lee, also a seventh-grader, seconds that. “I think that being outside is better than being in the classroom,” she says, “because kids are chock-full of energy.”
Participating in the school’s operations “helps them make good decisions—in their lives now and in the future,” says teacher Ben Wyrick. “They take charge of their education and they’re more involved in their community.”
AMS has the look of a rustic summer camp nestled at the foot of the Black Mountains. Fundraising has begun for a new academic building to join existing structures which include housing, an arts and performance center and outbuildings for the farm.
Students past and present have left their artistic marks on the campus. Teacher Sarah Golibart draws attention to one. “On the door to the school’s woodshop,” she says, “is a faded, student-designed mural with this Gandhi quote: ‘A school should be built by the children, should seek to be self-supporting and should never be finished.’”
The Arthur Morgan School is located about an hour north of Asheville. To learn more, visit arthurmorganschool.org.