Thursday, October 31, 2013

Arthur Morgan School: Burnsville, NC

An hour northeast of Asheville lives the Arthur Morgan School, a progressive learning community of 7th, 8th and 9th graders. The school was founded over 50 years ago, dedicated to supporting teens in becoming "compassionate, confident, and competent young men and women." While not technically a Montessori school, Arthur Morgan operates under Maria Montessori's teaching that adolescents thrive in a boarding setting with hands-on, real world work that is closely tied to nature. 

The land is owned by the Celo Community, a well-established intentional community of Quakers now stewarding 1,200 acres in the region. The schools leases the land for their classrooms, gardens, and community houses for the incredible sum of $1 per year, one of the many offerings of community support that helps keep their tuition as low as possible. In addition to a fairly large endowment that helps fund scholarships, the school is very open to working with families. For example, Nettle, the school cow, was accepted as partial tuition from a farming family.

Students live in groups of four in small farmhouses with two house-parents. The house we visited was beautiful: full of light, plants, instruments, crafts the children had made, cozy communal space, and a large garden outside with chickens and the school's free-roaming calf, who had proved difficult to corral. Children have tremendous responsibility to maintain the spaces. After breakfast and before bed in the boarding houses, students have chores. I was impressed by how clean and neat the group houses were (except for their bedrooms-- they are teenagers, after all). 

In the dining room and cafeteria, two teens were busy in the kitchen preparing lunch, and three girls were pulling corn kernels off of small, dried cobs, corn they had grown themselves in the garden adjoining the kitchen. One girl explained that when they were done, they'd have popcorn "for years!" The gardens and greenhouses provide a significant percentage of the food for students' meals, both in the cafeteria and their boarding home kitchens in the morning and evening.

In addition to classroom-oriented learning options, there are "internships," similar to Montessori's idea of "occupations." These are opportunities for students to participate with staff members in running different parts of the school program; the students we had seen in the  kitchen help keep food stocked and cook twice a week. The work in the kitchen is also a starting point for meaningful academic inquiry. For instance, the theme of the unit of internships was "grains." They spend each week learning about a different kind of grain that they're then cooking with throughout the week, different elements of biology or chemistry or history. Students can also participate as interns in the outdoor program, in the garden program, and in the maintenance program.

Off the kitchen is a cozy, couch-filled meeting room. Every day starts at 8:30 with a half-hour community sing. Community announcements follow, before students break for academic work. The weekly community meetings in the same space operate on consensus and are clerked by a rotation of 9th graders, the oldest students in the school. Always operating with Quaker influence, Arthur Morgan is now technically a provisional Quaker school.

Hopkins, the first academic building (pictured above), was built as a product of work camps in 1959-62. Elizabeth & Earnest Morgan, who founded the school, convinced their friends to stay in tents during the summers and drag river rocks to build the school. There are traditional classes held here in the mornings. Students rotate between math and language arts, and "Core Class". "Core Class" is a daily hour and a half block offering an integrated, interdisciplinary, theme-based class. Course offerings change each unit and year, driven by the passions of the staff, but always cover science, social studies, and art. The offerings during our visit were African-American history, Life on Planets, and Pottery.

Before lunch, the whole school joins together in a circle in silence, another Quaker inspired routine. Students came out of the woodwork from their projects all over campus and joined the circle, where we stood together quietly as the handful of campus dogs frolicked around. Announcements were made over the noise of the wind, and everyone ran inside for a delicious, home-cooked meal. Despite their friendly offer, I opted not to join the group of students & teachers who had an outdoor eating club (every day, any weather, no exceptions). Instead, I settled at a table with a few students who were incredibly excited that I lived in New York and wanted to hear everything I knew about Banksy's recent self-proclaimed art residency

There was so much more that was special about this school: 18-day road trips as capstone to student-directed inquiry, beautiful graduation gifts that 9th-grade classes had built for the school as a thank-you (cob oven, milking shed, etc), structured time for student-directed community improvement projects (we came across one student working independently to fix the wall-mounted pencil sharpener). Evidence of students' care for their community (people & spaces) abounded. 

What do you think about the Montessori approach to adolescence; that is, send children to the country and have them work with their hands? How about the idea of intentionally segregating this age group from younger children? What do you see as an ideal balance of indoor and outdoor time for children? Does it depend on age?

It was clear that this was a group of extraordinarily skilled & happy young people (and adults). Thanks, Arthur Morgan!


  1. Nice article about AMS. However, I would ask that you edit this piece and state that the school was founded by Elizabeth Morgan with help from her husband Ernest. Christine Morgan was Ernest's second wife whom he married several years after Elizabeth passed away. Thanks. Bill Schultz, former AMS Staff Member