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Schools & Program Visits - Aug, 1999 Issue #60  

Black Mountain, North Carolina
Catherine Jennings, Director

Visit by Lon Woodbury
June 30, 1999

Traveling down the twisted, gravel road to Stone Mountain School a few miles outside the small resort town of Black Mountain, North Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains makes for a ‘mountain driving experience.’ It is very obvious you have left civilization behind.

The view of a small lake is revealed upon pulling into the parking lot by the main office building. It seems everyone with property in North Carolina has a lake in the middle of it, especially schools and camps. The next glance from the parking lot reveals rustic summer camp style buildings situated on 100 acres. When I last visited in 1996, they recently had bought the property and had just starting “fixing up.” The focus had been on “saving” the existing buildings. That work has steadily progressed, to the stage where the major buildings have been “saved,” and Jennings is well on the way to carrying out a master plan of what they want the campus to look like. Some of the smaller buildings have been remodeled so extensively, they are virtually new buildings. Remodeling on other buildings is well beyond “saving,” and has moved into the “enhancement” phase.

Since my last visit in 1996, they have eliminated the last of their “public pay” students, converting exclusively to “private pay.” This now enables them to screen out “tougher” students who act-out, allowing the school to focus even more on the “academic” elements of the curriculum. Typical students are boys aged 11 to 18, often with learning disabilities and low self-esteem, who are struggling in their family, school or community. They do not accept boys with problems like fire-setting, homicidal or suicidal ideations, active psychosis or other severe psychiatric conditions.

Along with the emotional growth structure, there has been major growth in their academic program. Sam Moore’s eyes light up with excitement as he talks about what they are doing and planning, for the students’ academics. He is the Director of Academics, and it is obvious he is being encouraged to push ahead as fast as he can to build as strong an academic curriculum as possible for these students.

He is following a concept obtained from the writings of the Russian Lev Vygotsky, who among other things, promoted an educational concept called “Zone of Proximal Development.” The point is to not teach below a child’s ability, or above their frustration level. Moore is developing this common sense idea as “we educate students in a deliberate fashion by constantly collaborating with them. We assess their ability and frustration levels, and plan instruction that falls within the ‘zone’ that exists between those two levels.” A lot of attention is given to individualizing the curriculum to meet each student’s needs. They accomplish this through maintaining small classes (average size is 8-10), testing new students in all academic areas to determine their level of need and with the collaboration of the students, developing specific goals. The school is a fully licensed special education school. Thus students earn academic credit in all content areas and can easily transfer credits to other private and public schools.

Parents receive weekly progress reports about academics and behavior. Parenting seminars are provided twice a year to work on parenting skills in the context of issues and progress made by their child at the school.

Stone Mountain School is based on the long term camping model originally developed by Campell Loughmiller who was with the Dallas Salesmanship Club in Texas in the 1950s. This model is used widely in the Southeast by programs for at-risk students such as Eckerd Family Youth Alternative and Three Springs Outdoor Treatment Programs. There are four camps at Stone Mountain School. The camp I walked to displayed evidence of the considerable effort made by the students to landscape “their space.” They had planted a garden consisting of flowers and vegetables, attempting to establish a pleasant look. Pride in their physical surroundings is an important lesson taught at the school. The “landscaping” showed a lot of trying, but more work needed before they boys would show they had really gotten the lesson.

In the four years since my last visit, the school has matured. They are beyond their early difficulties, which included the normal tribulations that accompany establishing a new school. Added to this was the trauma of weathering the impact of radical changes in state policy. This resulted in them terminating dependence on state placement by now accepting only parent placement. Having this behind them, and by some important restructuring of staff responsibilities, the school has a better focus on what their mission is. Its feeling of safety is improving.

Copyright © 1999, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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