Feeding the animals and reading philosophy They go hand-in-hand at the Mountain School
Vershire, Vt. — Books lying on a bench outside the barn tell the story. Inside, Betsy Townsend struggles to keep hold of a feisty calf as Maria Theophilis feeds it goat's milk. Once the plastic bottle is drained, they pick up their books and head up the road to breakfast and a ``morning meeting'' before Saturday classes. They are high school students in Milton Academy's half-year Mountain School program.
Thirty-eight students from more than two dozen schools came here this fall to face the challenges of a rigorous academic program while living and working on an active 300-acre farm.
``The school is almost a journey; one in which wondering and wandering are part of the same thing,'' says Thom Geier, a junior from University School in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the schools sponsoring the program. ``Teachers and students are down in the dirt, [the teachers] learning right with the students.'' This community effort, he says, makes for an experience that teaches ``how to cooperate with people and how to understand their core values and accept them for what they are.''
Mountain School co-directors David and Nancy Grant initiated the program because they thought environmental ethics were ``severely lacking'' in most schools, says Mrs. Grant. The original Mountain School, founded about 20 years ago, closed in 1982 due to financial strain. When the Grants, both from the Milton Academy, were invited to visit in 1983 and consider starting a new program, they thought of students at Milton who could greatly benefit from it. They persuaded Milton's board of trustees to purcha se -- with the help of sponsoring schools -- the Mountain School as a second campus. Last fall, 36 high school juniors attended the first semester of the new program.
``I see this as an opportunity to teach students who are going to go out and make a difference ten years from now, because they're the ones whoare going to get good educations and go out and get good jobs,'' says Mrs. Grant.
David Grant, her husband, says the courses offered in English, math, science, history, art, and foreign languages share a ``common theme: . . . the whole relationship of mankind and the environment.'' The English course, for example, focuses on man's attitude toward nature as expressed in literature. The science courses use the surrounding ecosystems for their laboratory. The subjects drawn, painted, and collaged in studio art are from the Vermont landscape.
If the academic core of the program is somewhat more interdisciplinary than that of the average high school, it's not far from tradition in content or technique. But academics are less than half the picture here.
The students attend morning classes Mondays through Saturdays, but their afternoons are spent in fields, workshops, and art studios. Activities, held two afternoons a week, include woodworking, pottery, stained glass, studio art, and advanced farming. Work crews meet three afternoons each week to harvest vegetables, chop and split firewood, make maple sugar, plant, repair fences, or maintain the buildings. After an evening study hall and before dorm check-in, many students gather on top of a mountain-e ncompassed plateau to gaze at the stars and search the hearts and minds of newly acquired friends.
Wednesday nights are set aside for all-school lectures on environmental topics, half presented by members of the faculty, the other half by guest speakers, including poets and artists as well as environmental scientists.
``It's not an agricultural school,'' says farm manager Eliot Coleman, ``because agriculture is a teacher here rather than a subject. It's an excellent medium for teaching . . . [because] it shows these kids that knowledge has practical application rather than just schoolroom application.''
Several factors contribute to the intensity of the Mountain School experience: the narrow focus on academics and environmental activities (athletics and many traditional extracurricular activities are excluded); the brevity of the two 15-week programs (which, says David Grant, ``brings a special, extra performance out of the students''); and the tightness of the community. Not only are the 38 students close, but faculty members work, play, and eat with students.
A consortium of five schools loaned money to Milton for acquisition and improvements. In exchange, places were reserved for two of their juniors each semester. Today, almost two dozen member schools -- from Maryland, Ohio, and New York as well as New England -- sponsor the program. Students from non-member schools and prospective seniors are also accepted into the program when there are openings. While the directors don't want to increase the student body of the program much, they are eager to get more
Although the Mountain School tuition is a steep $5,150 per semester, about 25 percent of the students come on financial aid, including one girl whose mother is on welfare. And while many of the students are from prestigious prep schools, academic superiority is not the primary gauge in determining who is accepted.
David Grant says the sort of student who does best in the short program here ``with a lot of energy, [who's] interested in school, [and] senses the opportunity to do different things in a school that's so small.''