By Kayla Bott
The French Broad River Academy (FBRA) of Asheville has been enriching the lives of local middle-schoolers since 2009. Their mission statement, “to build character and integrity in young men and women for a lifetime of learning and service,” is evidenced by their unique approach to education. The FBRA’s program works to minimize distractions and enhance learning by maintaining separate campuses for girls and boys, removing social media and allowing students to regularly experience the outdoors.
“The three pillars of our school are outdoor education, rigorous academics, and social/emotional learning,” says Caroline Callahan, dean of students for girls. “These principles seek to instill deep and varied learning in our students that will last a lifetime.”
The FBRA’s well-rounded curriculum gives adolescents the tools to combat the common sources of anxiety and depression. One day per week, students take part in a wide variety of outdoor activities from canoeing or rock-climbing to environmental stewardship or volunteering for nonprofits.
“In the schools that I previously attended, the administration was much less focused on outdoor activities and foreign languages than the FBRA,” says Hope Robinson, eighth-grader. “I really enjoy learning Spanish and being given the opportunity to further my physical strength at least once a week.”
The FBRA’s focus on building meaningful relationships is a core principle of the school. Induction starts with a week-long camping trip (at Camp Mondamin for Boys and at Camp Green Cove for Girls) where students and staff team-build, learn outdoor safety and simply have fun. Other overnight trips, including one to Costa Rica, are held throughout the school year. Reinforcing mature communication and social awareness, students take part in community meetings and debriefings after field lessons and trips, and regularly engage in paideia (Socratic method) seminars and service learning in the community.
“One draw to our school is the powerful, positive women staff as role models,” says Jen Horschman, girls school director. “They exhibit true confidence and competence, which our students can connect with and aspire to.”
The women who teach in the classroom are the same leaders who guide the girls through camping, river rafting, skiing, spelunking and other activities. This dynamic group of mentors empowers students to develop skills in many different avenues, easing their tensions about taking risks and confronting issues with confidence.
“Our women staff is very intentional about creating a safe space for our girls to tackle new experiences, grapple with challenges and process new understandings and choices,” says Horschman. “Girls can identify with and confide in any one, or many, of our staff to make them feel included and important.”
By focusing on strengthening trust, respect and relationships between students and their leaders, girls are given the opportunity to be comfortable with failure and to realize that success often requires struggle, practice and hard work. Regular adventuring and working through adversity can foster confidence and conviction in uncertain situations.
“I love how all of the teachers and classmates at the FBRA are so supportive of each other,” says Claire Hunt, eighth grade student. “The small size allows you to get to know everyone on a personal level, which is very different than the public school I previously attended. The fantastic outdoor program allows us to have amazing experiences that I know I will never forget.”
The girls at the FBRA learn to nurture their community, the environment and themselves through adaptability, reflection and perseverance. The school operates with the knowledge that a strong connection to nature and community leads to a happy and healthy life.
“Developing grit, communicating with a wide variety of people and overcoming fears are all skills that produce confident, empathetic young people,” says Callahan. “The FBRA model is set up to educate the whole child, not just her academic brain. Our curriculum seeks to teach our students skills that will continue to be valuable throughout their lives.”
For more information, visit fbra-avl.org.