In 2009 Floyd County High School’s graduating valedictorian and salutatorian both had educational roots in Floyd’s small independent Blue Mountain School (BMS). They weren’t the only ones. As many as ten students in the past 19 years who attended BMS and later enrolled in public school have received such honors.
This year BMS is marking its 30th year of providing pre-school through middle school education with a day long reunion to celebrate the efforts of the BMS community and the accomplishments of past students. BMS alumni have gone on to become computer scientists, engineers, a teacher, a lawyer, a physician’s assistant, a writer, an artist, a forensic biologist, an architect, chef and more.
Born out of the homeschooling movement in 1981, BMS has always provided a holistic and hands-on approach to education with a focus on critical thinking and the arts. For many years it operated as a parent-run cooperative and has early roots in Waldorf education, a philosophy put forth by the founder of anthropology, Rudolf Steiner.
One of the first BMS teachers was Alwyn Moss, a trained Waldorf kindergarten teacher who currently lives in Blacksburg. Moss describes the Waldorf educational philosophy as one that emphasizes the importance of sensory experiences, imitation and trusting relationships. “I was deeply convinced of the value of rhythms, creative play, fantasy and imagination, art and music, and nourishing a sense of the sacredness of nature and life for the young child,” Moss remembers.
“Sometime around 1980 a food co-op started in an old mill (Epperly Mill) just outside of town. The ageing building was available and dreams of turning it into some kind of workable space started to emerge. The kids would play on the open wood floors as the parents sorted food orders of flour, dried beans, and other organic bulk items. So what kind of school? Who would be the teacher? Where—maybe here in the mill? Meanwhile another group of parents, who lived in the northeast part of the county, on adjacent land or a part of a land-sharing community called Riverflow, started similar discussions thinking they would create something there.”
Avery remembers the first incarnation of the school in 1981. It was called the Mountain Dove and was located in a rented house in town. From there it became BMS in 1982 with some classes being housed in the Old Church Gallery, which was located in the Presbyterian Church at the time. The school was also located in another rented house on 221, next to the now closed Moran’s Grocery Store, before relocating to the current main building on Christiansburg Pike, which was constructed in part by BMS parents and community members in 1986.
Bob Grubel, another founding parent, recalls clearing the land in preparation for the school’s construction. “After we purchased the property (8 acres of wooded land) someone had to cut down the pines to clear a site for the school building. I remember wading into the thicket of pines on a Monday morning with chain saw in hand and wondering where to begin? So I just started felling trees and limbing, and on it went for basically a week.” Grubel, a musician, played at BMS dance benefits and also headed up BMS fundraising projects, such as the BMS Art Auction.
BMS alumna Amara Franko Heller, who graduated from Floyd County High School (FCHS) as the salutatorian in 1993, says BMS was formative in the development of her enthusiasm for learning, which carried her through high school, college and beyond. “Learning was so well blended with creativity that it never got boring,” she remembers about her years at BMS.
Today Heller is an acupuncturist who runs a Chinese Medicine clinic in Harrisonburg with her husband. As the mother of a bright 20-month-old, Heller has been thinking about her alternative education again. “I want to give my child the opportunity to learn in that same kind of supportive and open environment.”
Some children currently enrolled in BMS are second generation students, like Leia Jones’s son Porter Sweeney, who has been attending BMS for the past two years. Jones, a professional dancer who studied dance and choreography at Hollins University, recalls that going to BMS allowed her to engage in imaginary play on a daily basis. “That formed the way I view the world today,” she says, noting that some of her favorite BMS memories include cooking meals, doing yoga, writing poetry and collectively building forts and play villages in the woods on the school property.
Jones, whose aunt and grandmother were teachers at BMS, also attended public school for some of her elementary and middle school years, before getting her GED and then graduating from Hollins. Her brother Van Jones, who also attended BMS, was homeschooled through high school. He attended New River College and Virginia Western College, and is now working on his PHD in Oceanographic Engineering at Virginia Tech.
Ananda Underwood, another BMS alumnus with a child currently enrolled in BMS, talks about the sense of community and acceptance that BMS provides. “I have a solid foundation of friendships that started at BMS, said the FCHS graduate and social-worker as she watched her son happily interact with others on the BMS playground.
BMS Development Coordinator and Service Learning teacher Jamie Reygle describes the school today as “a highly esteemed, at-capacity contemplative-progressive educational resource that continues to grow and evolve in positive directions.” The school is guided by director Shelly Emmett and a BMS school board.
As in the past, BMS continues to provide small classroom size and teacher-student collaboration for fostering the academic, social, and emotional growth of students. The school promotes critical thinking through experiential activities and a project-based curriculum. BMS also focuses on the school-wide development of awareness, concentration and insight through creative expression and contemplative practices.
Recent school projects include making volcanoes, creating books for publication, running a book faire and setting up a school store to learn about money. A unit about African History involved the creation of a play about the Underground Railroad. A puppet show of presidential hopefuls giving campaign speeches was part of a study on the U.S. electoral process.
Reygle has been coordinating the school’s 30th year anniversary celebration reunion, tracking down alumni, collecting old photos and stories and making general plans. “We want to celebrate our history, share memories and have this be our biggest reunion yet,” he says.
The reunion, scheduled to begin at 3:00 p.m. on May 19th, will include a potluck and pig roast, camping and bonfire, skits and stories and a pre-emptive book launch of a book detailing the school’s history. Live music will be provided by Spoonfight, a popular band made up of BMS alumni, as well as re-united members of “Just Jake,” an “in-house” band that performed for many BMS fundraisers in years past.
“Above all was the feeling of doing something that hopefully mattered in a positive way for those who participated, parents, children and teachers,” Grubel says about founding and running the school.
Moss sums it up like this: “As I look back these many years now since my own participation in Blue Mountain, I am so grateful to know, what a strong, long lasting and significant aspect of life the school has become in Floyd County as an educational source, and in its cultural and social contributions to the community as a whole.” ~ Colleen Redman
Post notes: The first three photos are of the early years, 30 years ago, with the third photo depicting Alwyn Moss (on the right and who I recently wrote about HERE). The last three are current shots and show Leia and Porter on the BMS playground, Jamie Reygle in a classroom and Shelly Emmett leading a gratitude circle, which is done each Thursday at the close of the four day school week. I wrote about my memories of Blue Mountain School when my sons attended and posted more old photos HERE.