Cutting a New Path

Shouts of childish laughter drift from a revamped storefront in the little town of Bryson City, North Carolina. But this storefront isn't a toy store. It's a school: the Mountain Discovery Charter School, serving children in kindergarten through grade eight.

And it's something of a Kenyon creation. Mary Ellen Hammond '78 is one of its founders, and Hannah Levin '01 is the art teacher.

Bryson City, located in North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains, is an ideal place for Hammond from the standpoint of career--she and her husband, Jim Parham, run Milestone Press, which publishes guidebooks for outdoor adventure enthusiasts. But when Hammond moved to rural Swain County after graduation, she didn't consider the school system. Then, in 1995, she and Jim had a son, Sidney.

The idea for a charter school owes a good deal to what Hammond saw volunteering a half day a week in Sidney's overcrowded elementary school. "The first year," she says, "he had music class for thirty minutes each week. The second year he had thirty minutes of music class every other week. In contrast, all children had thirty minutes of physical education each day. There were several coaches to serve each school, but only one music teacher to serve three schools in the system. There was no art teacher at all for his school.

"I felt there was an imbalance there--a cultural choice to make phys ed more important than the arts and more important than academics. Kids who weren't naturally inclined toward football and calisthenics at an early age were being pigeonholed in a negative way."

Hammond felt that many students weren't being challenged, and she realized that in her small county there weren't many alternatives to public education. "There was only one private school, and that was actually out of reach of most parents in the county, because the income level is so low," she says.

So Hammond began talking to other parents in the community, as well as to business people and educators, about starting a charter school. "Maybe if I'd known what a big job it was going to be, I wouldn't have done it," she laughs.

The process of creating a charter school is, to put it mildly, arduous--as is the paperwork. The board for the prospective school has to submit a business plan, an education plan, and a marketing plan. Hammond and her fellow board members met weekly from January through August of 2001, working on the application. That December, they had to defend it in person before the North Carolina State Board of Education.

Approval came in February 2002. Then came the hunt for a location. One of the biggest challenges for charter schools, Hammond says, is that they're not allowed to use state funds to buy a building--only to rent. Swain County didn't offer a lot of options. Finally, the school settled on its present site, a storefront that sat vacant next to the biggest grocery store in the county. Mount Discovery welcomed its first students in the fall of 2002.

"The space used to house a drugstore and then a Dollar General store, so it was not a huge space but it met code in terms of the square footage we needed," Hammond says. "Basically, it was one big empty box with a row of windows at the front. We put the multipurpose room at the front; the classrooms do not currently have windows. The space had a vacant lot next to it, so we put a chain-link fence around it. At the end of the first year, the parent committee purchased a swing set and a sand box."

There was no furniture, so parents, students, and teachers brought their own from home. And one of those teachers just happened to be Kenyon graduate Hannah Levin.

Levin had come to Mountain Discovery as an Americorps VISTA volunteer after graduating with a degree in art. She was able to use Americorps' grant resources to bring in local artists to work with the students, and she drew on her own contacts.

"I grew up two hours north of here and my parents are both artists," Levin explains, "and I'm very connected to the artists' community."

The local community helped build the art program, too. "I had a family offer to pay for a fiddler to come," says Levin. "We also did a documentary photography project with a book-arts person, and that was all funded through the community."

Soon after starting her volunteer work, Levin was hired as Mountain Discovery's art teacher. She sees the school as a fertile mix of resources. Parents and community members join teachers in contributing their skills and expertise to the curriculum. "We come to the school as teachers, but also as people, so we can incorporate our own interests in things," she says. "For instance, I'm teaching the younger kids how to clog. I've brought my own guitars into the classroom to teach the students how to compose a song." Many projects, like quilt-making, center on community traditions.

Hammond values this reaching out. One of the great strengths of small charter schools, she says, is that "teachers who don't necessarily come from a traditional teaching background don't have preconceived notions of what kids can and cannot do; the path isn't worn so deeply through the grass."

And speaking of grass, both Hammond and Levin are looking forward to the school's future location: an eleven-acre campus located on a hilltop, where facilities are currently under construction.

"Right now we don't have the money for a building, so we're using modular units," Hammond says. But, she adds, the site "has a great view."

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