This year, Floyd’s independent Blue Mountain School celebrates its 30th birthday. School officials attribute its longevity to the pioneers who made the school what it is.
Back in 1981, when the school started, Floyd was a very different place. It was populated primarily by families who had resided here for more generations than many could count. But the preceding five to ten years had seen an influx of alternative people gravitating to the area, largely inspired by Edgar Cayce, who identified Floyd as one of the few safe places in the event of nuclear war.
These peculiar folk began having children and forming communities. When it came time for these children to get an education, many of these parents wanted to be more involved than what traditional schooling would allow.
One of the school’s founders, Luke Staengl, recollects, “Both of my boys had gone into the public school system and had fairly excruciating experiences. My oldest, Galen, needed more stimulation and intellectual challenge, as he was bored to tears. He couldn’t grapple with learning by rote. My youngest, Aaron, had pretty severe ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder; symptoms include inability to sit still, focus, pay attention, etc.
The condition that has afflicted children since the late 70s) and was pretty dyslexic. He wasn’t ready to read and write, and was having a problem relating to the worksheets his teachers kept giving him.
“I started thinking, ‘What is education about?’ Knowing both of my sons to be incredibly enthusiastic and curious, I thought we needed to create a venue for them to pursue their interests, and for them to be able to express their enthusiasm for life. They were both really avid learners, and we needed to create a situation that allowed them to excel.
“…I realized the only way to do this was to create a school. Home school was an option, but they needed social interaction. So I started calling around my friends, who were also beginning public school experiences, or were anticipating doing so. Pretty quickly, we lined up eight to ten people who were interested in forming the school. We started renting one farmhouse after another, as we tried to bring about the environment where the kids could explore their own curiosity and nature, and learn effectively at the same time.
“It’s been that way ever since, as far as I can tell.”
Katherine Chantal—who moved to Floyd partly because of the promise of Blue Mountain School—had five sons enrolled at one time back in the ‘80s. She explains: “I wanted to be part of my children’s education, with like-minded people in the county, as I believed being involved in a child’s education was a better way than what the public school offered.
“I moved here for community, for being with people. I wanted to be in community—a spiritually-minded community—with my children, and to be actively, purposefully involved with them, from school to home to their spiritual upbringing.
“I believe this vision I had for my children was realized.”
The dreams that started Blue Mountain School were consistently humble ones like Chantal’s. Another founding parent, Tom Franko—who had four daughters attend the school—is very clear about this.
“I hoped my kids would come out believing that they were normal. My hope was that they would do well, without thinking there was anything exceptional about them. And it’s happened. They don’t feel like they’re owed anything. They don’t feel like they’re better than anybody. They’re honest. And I think that’s pretty good.
“I wanted to help create an environment for our kids that didn’t stifle them. Blue Mountain School provided that. In the early days, we were an extended play place. We made sure that the young kids had lots of time off. Then we got into the Waldorf thing, and ensured they played together. It was our dream that our kids extended their community, by being a community.”
Again and again, the people you talk to from Blue Mountain School talk about community. Tom’s wife, Jody, encapsulates this: “The word that comes to mind for me is ‘community’. Blue Mountain School was a community of kids of different ages. They were all out on the playground together, creating together. Nobody was pigeonholed, which allowed for broad discovery.
“Blue Mountain School was a time for discovery. When those kids transitioned to public schools, they really, really wanted it. Other kids were burnt out by fourth grade. But for Blue Mountain School kids, learning was desirable.
“The way it continues today, is that those kids recognize each other, and where they are. They’re bonded in a substantial way, so that it’ll last a lifetime.
“I’m just so thankful it’s still going on, and still has the same kind of energy from community members that it had when I was at the school.”
Staengl, Chantal and the Frankos are some of the founding parents at the school. But what about their children? Thirty years on, how do they feel their dreams are shaping up?
Franko’s daughter, Amara Franko Heller, sums it up well: “I have absolutely realized my dreams, and Blue Mountain School is where it all started. It had such a positive influence on my evolving intellect and human experience.”
Today, thanks to the efforts of so many families, Blue Mountain School is thriving. It has record attendance figures, as parents and students are drawn to its contemplative-progressive educational model. The fact that three of the past five valedictorians at Floyd County High School are the products of its environment is further testament to the school’s continuing success.
But still, the school has dreams. The school’s Director, Shelly Emmett, explains: “Immediate goals include attaining tax-exempt status and seeking accreditation through the Virginia Association of Independent Schools, both of which will ensure long-term sustainability and growth for the school and will elevate all of our operations to a new level of self-regulation and professionalism.”
Staengl—who is currently on the school’s board—goes even further, “The fact that Blue Mountain School is now more vibrant than ever; the people involved are all wonderful folks; and it has high attendance, is an amazing validation of the experience we had there.
“I’m dreaming on. I’m thinking that in the next two to five years, I want to participate in making an endowment for the school and ensuring that there is plenty of money to support all the wonderful things that are happening.
“I would love to see the school continue to grow and expand to include education through high school. It can be a place where kids can audit college classes and also interact with various trades and industries in the area, so by the time they leave Blue Mountain School, they’ll know totally what they want to do and where they want to go.
“That’s my ongoing dream for the school.”
Blue Mountain School will hold Open House on Saturday, May 21st from 1pm to 4pm. Registration takes place in late spring, and inquiries are welcome any time. Parents can contact the school at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 540-745-4234, to register for next year’s classes. To learn more about the school, visit www.bluemountainschool.net.
Submitted by Jamie Reygle, Service Learning teacher at Blue Mountain School. Jamie also writes a daily blog for InventorSpot.com.
Luis A Garcia
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FLOYD VIRGINIA publication
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This story was published in Floyd Magazine Spring/Summer 2011 ~Senior Editor Dee Wallace