By Taylor Boyd
Holler Creek School of Appalachian Ecology in Cana is set
to open its doors in August to give kids a more local, engaging education.
Teachers Melanie Schrage and Aaron Sebens, co-directors and co-founders of the school, said they were inspired to start Holler Creek due to their experience in education.
“We’ve both been in education for almost 20 years and we’ve always felt that the way education is set up, doesn’t give kids the most engaging education they can get,” Sebens said.
He said they tried to take everything they’ve learned from teaching around the world to create a school to give kids exactly what they need.
“We’ve going to give kids a lot of time to learn outside, rigorous academics, and the biggest thing we want to give kids is a connection to where they live in this place, Blue Ridge Mountains,” he said.
Sebens, who grew up in the area and attended school locally for his entire school career, said he didn’t learn anything about the area during his education.
“This is a really special place, and the one thing that schools have in common is that kids live in the place, and most school don’t really take advantage of that. We’re trying to base our school entirely on that. To really learn deeply about this place, the animals and plants that are here, the history of where we live, and what makes it a really special place,” Sebens said.
The Holler Creek School is located on a 35-acre campus that includes waterfalls, caves, apple trees, two creeks, and two ponds. The school is available to students in the first through fifth grades.
Schrage said the school is accepting 16 students in the upcoming school year, and has already received about six applications.
Schrage said the school will follow a traditional school year, with students attending August to the end May, and breaks for fall, spring, and a winter holiday hiatus.
“We’re going to have three trimesters, so it will be broken up into three chunks that way. Monday through Thursday will be on our campus from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. We’ll meet up by the creek where parents drop their kids off and we’ll walk” the less than half-a-mile to “our buildings area,” she said.
Schrage said students will be divided into two smaller groups of about eight for core classes like Math and Reading, which will herald the beginning of school days.
“Our afternoons will primarily be project-based. We’ll incorporate arts into that time, lots and lots of movement, hiking, nature journaling, and Science and Social Studies that’s really focused on this place. Whatever kind of very experiential hands-on activities we can do to connect learners with the content that we’re trying to study together,” she said.
Schrage added the day will end with cleaning the classrooms together because “it’s important for kids to be able to take part in ownership and stewardship of the place, space, and time.”
She said every third Friday will be a field-work day, with classes heading outside of the immediate school area to visit farms, state parks, heritage sites, and Fairy Stone State Park.
Sedens said that underscores the many rich places that exist and is one of the reasons they wanted to start this school.
“While they are great places to learn, they are really hard for large schools to get 100 kids there. But we can get 16 kids there pretty easily,” he said.
Schrage said both teachers have always wanted to teach in a way that they feel passionate about and aren’t bound to do things a certain way.
“This is something that we feel like we are doing for ourselves, our two kids who are going to be part of the school, and we’re doing it to hopefully make a good impact on the community and really be able to work with a small group of students to help encourage their passions and their success and give them a really good foundation for being able to make a positive impact as they grow in this place,” she said.
“We want to try to do education in a really personal and radical way,” Sebens added.
He said the school also helps celebrate the history and culture of the Appalachia area.
“We want the mountains to be taken care of for a long time. We want to nurture the next Rachel Carson, or the next Bob Childress, or Orlean Puckett. People who contribute really deeply and greatly to their community. We figured that starts with teaching them to appreciate the community they live in,” he said.
For more information visit Facebook.com/HollerCreekSchool. For more information or to schedule a tour, visit www.hollercreek.org.