Mountain Campus open for learning

PERU - Jillian Flanagan, 17, and a member of the senior class at Burr and Burton, was searching for something a little different this year out of school.

"All my friends had graduated, and I was looking for something to kind of spark my interest in school more," she said. "So when I heard about this, I thought, 'why not try something new?'"

The "this" was the Mountain Campus program, which after nearly eight years in gestation, planning, fund-raising and permitting, opened its doors at the start of the school year towards the end of August.

The Mountain Campus straddles the boundaries of Peru and Landgrove and is located off Hapgood Pond Road. It sits on about 100 acres of forest and wilderness, and while the focus may center around environmental issues, there's more to it than that, said its director, Ben Freeman.

The central pillar of the program is for students to be immersed in "place," he said. The word comes up frequently in his discussions about the new campus and the course of study students will experience there.

That partly has to do with understanding and appreciating the physical characteristics of a given area and its ecological components. But the other half of that involves personal growth and development that grows out of a sense of rootedness in a place and the community that grows up around it, he said.

"A big emphasis of what we're looking at is helping students see how they can be positive agents of change," he said. "Through that process, and by creating a shared sense of values... the students will recognize things they care about and are passionate about, and they'll want to improve those things."

Going to school at the Mountain Campus will be different in several ways from a typical day at the main campus in Manchester. It's a longer school day, first of all; running from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday. Because of that, and because of the logistical issues involved in transporting students by bus to Peru from Manchester and back again, extracurricular activities are effectively out of reach for the students enrolled in the program. No sports teams; no trying out for parts in the school play. It's as close to a full immersion as possible. Even if transportation arrangements could be made to fit in some extracurricular activity, those would conflict with some of the overnight stays and weeklong camping trips that have been planned, he said.

Because of permitting restrictions agreed to with the host communities plus a desire to leave a light environmental footprint, travel to and from the campus for the students will mostly be by bus. Students who don't live in the immediate vicinity will meet up at the Manchester campus and travel by bus up the mountain in the morning and back in the afternoon. They will be able to utilize some of the resources on the main campus, like the library, the exercise rooms and other special services, Freeman said.

Plans are in place for students enrolled in the mountain program to attend some of the school's morning assemblies - traditionally a time when all students at BBA gather together - but mostly that will be because they will be discussing their experiences there and tell other students about what's going on over the other side of the mountain. They will also be blogging and writing about their work online, he said.

A typical day on the Mountain Campus will start with a gathering in the campus's main building, after which they will fan out in smaller groups to a classroom or a lab, or the campus library, or the outdoor classroom that surrounds the building.

And students will be expected to maintain the building; there won't be any support staff. Developing a community is a big function of the building, he said.

The curriculum is geared around a core of science and humanities courses and students will return to Burr and Burton with credits in science, English, history and physical education, where leadership and outdoor skills will be a focus.

Along with Freeman, there will be three other teachers as part of the instructional team.

For those students anticipating continuing their education at the college level, a semester at the Mountain Campus should not be a drawback, Freeman said; it will probably help differentiate them from other students with whom they'll be competing with for admission and should not hamper them.

"Elite colleges and universities recognize the value of a student taking a step off the beaten track," he said. "If we can demonstrate that this is both a wonderful community experience but just as importantly, a high caliber intellectual experience, then we'll have no trouble convincing people of that."

The curriculum will also draw upon the outdoor classroom of the Mountain Campus for literature and historical inspiration. Works of literature that deal with outdoor themes, particularly if set in northern New England, as well as local history, will likely be foundation for those classes. According to its Web site, an inter-disciplinary, project-intensive curriculum is planned, with frequent assessment. The approach should allow for students who learn across a variety of learning styles.

"The core question we're presenting students with is 'what does it mean to live well in the place?'" Freeman said. "To answer that question, you have to understand landscape and ecology - and also look at literature and how people have expressed that in writing."

Credits will be awarded on a pass/fail basis accompanied by a detailed evaluation of the student's educational experience, the school's web site states.

For its first semester, about 20 students are enrolled in the program, ranging from sophomores to seniors. When its fully up and running, Freeman anticipates a maximum of 40 students might fit onto the campus. They have to apply to get in and pass through a selection process, Freeman said.

The process asked students to talk about their commitment to community, persistence in the face of adversity, degree of motivation and their willingness to try new things, Freeman said.

"We wanted a broad spectrum of students - we want this to be a program that is available to the vast majority of BBA students," he said. "We had more students apply than we could take in. We want this to be a facet of Burr and Burton - that the student experience here is highly relevant to their experience on the main campus and vice versa."


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