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Kids on the Mountaintop

girls at Fernleaf Bearwallow field trip
Penelope and Ada investigate a strange plant.

Bearwallow field trips help connect FernLeaf students to the outdoors

It was a schoolday, but the whole school was on top of a mountain. With panoramic mountain views all around, first grader Penelope was examining a strange plant. It was growing out of the open pasture on top of Bearwallow Mountain. It had tough, woody branches and green pods armored in thorns. The older pods had split open, revealing shiny, dark seeds. Other pods had just started to crack. Penelope and her friends tried different ways to pry them open, but the thorns pricked their fingers. Using sticks helped. Penelope slid some seeds out, dug a small hole, and dropped them in. “I’m planting them!” she said. 

For Penelope, the best part of this field trip was “experimenting on different plants.”

She said, “I’m experimenting on this plant and seeing why they do this job to protect the seeds and why are they prickly.”

Her friend, second grader Ada agreed. “I love science.”

Elsewhere on the mountaintop, a group of boys stacked rocks to build a house for “an ant millionaire.” Kids walked or ran on rocks, trying not to teeter off into imaginary lava. Others looked for bugs, and found spiders, beetles, crickets, and grubs. Kids did cartwheels. Kites sailed and bubbles floated on the breeze.   

Boys looking for bugs
Boys look for bugs.

On this cool October day, FernLeaf Community Charter School brought the entire school—nearly 300 students, from kindergarten through sixth grade—to the top of the mountain, with the help of volunteers and Conserving Carolina. The children hiked the one-mile trail in groups, sometimes scrambling up a boulder on their way or taking a break to write in their journals. Students who couldn’t hike also reached the mountaintop, by way of a gravel access road.  

On the summit, the school gathered to sing songs, including some original numbers (“Going up Bearwallow Mountain, going up Bearwallow Mountain, going down!”). They practiced mindfulness, noticing what they saw, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted. And there was time for the kids to just be free—to run, or lie in the grass, or invent their own experiments and games.

How Can We Make School Better?

One reason that educators Michael and Molly Luplow moved to Henderson County 16 years ago was to be out in the mountains—to go hiking, biking, camping, and paddling.

“I had just moved here, so I was super excited about everything,” Michael remembers. “One really beautiful fall morning, I was standing outside of the school with a bunch of third graders and it was super clear. We could see Mt. Pisgah perfectly, and I said to some of my kids, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys, isn’t Mt. Pisgah beautiful?’ And they all looked at me and they were like, ‘What’s Mt. Pisgah?’ I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’ From that moment it just stuck with me that so many of these kids have no idea what they have in their backyard.”

Michael and Molly started thinking about what they could do to broaden students’ experience—and other ways to make school better.   

Molly was a school counselor and she saw how much negativity many people feel about school—from students to parents to teachers and staff.   

Student with walking stick
A Fernleaf student hikes Bearwallow Mountain.

“Michael and I were getting into that phase of our life where we’d been in education for a long time and we were starting to grow our family and have children. And it kind of put things into perspective,” she says. “The question we asked ourselves and our friends and acquaintances who were in education or had children was, ‘What do you value in education? What do you think makes a great educational experience for children?’” 

These conversations grew into a bold idea—a new charter school. Michael and Molly helped launch FernLeaf Community Charter School, which opened in 2016. Michael serves as the executive director and Molly as the school director. 

FernLeaf is a tuition-free public school, although there is usually a lottery to get in. The school focuses on project-based, experiential learning. It prioritizes a positive culture where staff enjoy their work and children feel nurtured. Students learn social and emotional skills along with academics. They go on field trips at least eight times a year and they go outside almost every day. Michael says, “We try to make school awesome for kids.”

“They Were Really Asking To Go Outside”

Students who discover Bearwallow through school trips can come back throughout their lives because the mountaintop is protected forever, through Conserving Carolina. The local land trust  helped protect nearly 500 acres on the mountain and built the trail, as part of the emerging 130-mile Hickory Nut Gorge State Trail system. 

Last year, Conserving Carolina supported field trips to Bearwallow by three local schools—FernLeaf, Edneyville Elementary School, and Lake Lure Classical Academy.  

Three girls at Bearwallow
Fernleaf students play on Bearwallow summit.

While the annual field trip to Bearwallow is a special day for FernLeaf students, they also connect with nature on their school grounds. The school is located on 26 acres in Fletcher, on the banks of Cane Creek, across the road from the Bill Moore Community Park. 

Michael says, “There’s a ton of research about how kids spending time outside affects their overall happiness. But we don’t need it. We just know that humans need to spend time outside. And our kids spend substantial amounts of time outside. I ask our teachers, if there’s a lesson they can teach outside, even if it has nothing to do with being outside, take ’em outside. Our kids eat lunch outside every day. They have more than ample playtime outside.”

He says, “I think back to a friend of mine who works in early childhood education, who was a pioneer in this area. She would say that, inside, the kids would stop sharing and they’d be fighting with one another.

What they were really doing was asking to go outside—they just didn’t know it. So she’d take them outside and then instantly the children would be happy to share with one another and they would start helping each other.”

Boys playing on Bearwallow
Boys play during FernLeaf’s field trip to Bearwallow.

Expanding a Greenway, Envisioning a Park

In coming years, there could be even more opportunities to experience the outdoors on and around the school—and not just for students. This year, Conserving Carolina and the Town of Fletcher worked with FernLeaf to pursue two state grants that would enhance both education and recreation. The results came back one ‘yes’ and one ‘try again.’

The ‘yes’ was a proposal to expand the Cane Cane Creek Greenway. The N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund awarded funds to purchase an easement for the greenway through the school grounds. The school plans to channel most of that income into greenway construction. Michael says the expanded greenway will help connect the school with the community and improve students’ access to the creek. (Plus, the staff wants to bike to breweries after work.)

The school also has a vision for a new campus nearby, on high ground with sweeping mountain views. Michael says, “We found this land and we were like this, ‘This is incredible, it has some of the best views in Western North Carolina.” 

Conserving Carolina executive director, Kieran Roe compares it to Jump Off Rock with its panoramic views.

The 93-acre property is more land than the school needs, so the goal is to use 35 acres for the school campus while creating a local park on the remaining 58 acres. FernLeaf, Conserving Carolina, and the Town of Fletcher worked together to seek a NC Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant, which was not funded this year; however, they were encouraged to try again next year. If they succeed, FernLeaf students and the Fletcher community could enjoy mountaintop experiences far more than once a year. 

Fernleaf proposed new campus
FernLeaf, the Town of Fletcher, and Conserving Carolina are working together to create a new school campus and a local park at this site in Fletcher.

This article is written by Rose Jenkins Lane as part of our our monthly Stories of the Land series which runs in the Hendersonville Times-News. These stories explore people’s connection to the land and the ways they give back to the places they love.  

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