Springhouse Community School: A Conversation with the Leadership Team
Q&A 11 August 2016
By Ezekiel Fugate and Jenny Finn and Joe Klein
The support from this community is strong because those who give to the school get as much (or more) out of their experience as our students do.
Co-Founder, Springhouse Community School
Discover how an environmental engineer, Rocky Mountain native, and community counselor joined forces in Floyd, VA to create holistic change in this vibrant community.
Q. What led you to the learner-centered education field?
A. Jenny: I have spent most of my career mentoring individuals, leading retreats, and speaking around the country about the importance of building solid ground within oneself to be of clearer service to the world. Because it is my understanding that every person has what they need within themselves to live a healthy, whole, and connected life, it makes sense that I would be drawn to learner-centered education. The teachers that I remember are those who saw the gift in me, asked courageous questions, and challenged me to bring my gift forward into the world.
A. Joe: One of my first mentors in college, Beryl Crowe, awakened me to my unique learning styles and expressions of intelligence, and he also opened my mind to all the learning that was taking place for me outside of the context of classroom and campus. This was the first time that any adult—let alone a teacher—had really seen me and taken the time to help me look into myself as a learning being.
As a Licensed Professional Counselor providing mental health and substance abuse counseling for adolescents in rural Appalachia, many of the students I worked with were frustrated, bored, or disengaged from the learning process. I knew there was a better way to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of young people. I also knew that the problems of teenage substance abuse, depression, anxiety, bullying, and violence in schools would never be effectively addressed if adolescent educational experiences did not evolve.
After spending six weeks providing crisis counseling for students who survived the tragedy at Virginia Tech in 2007, I re-committed myself to fostering educational opportunities for youth that address the development of social and emotional, as well as academic, skills.
A. Ezekiel: My formal educational experiences did little to help me discover a deeper purpose for my life. While I was in a PhD program for environmental engineering, I had the good fortune of connecting with a mentor outside of the program who asked me some very honest questions. Finding the courage I needed to live authentically, I left graduate school, choosing—for perhaps the first time in my life—the vulnerability of staying open over the security of doing what was expected of me. This re-orientation led me to farming and then to teaching and mentoring in a small, progressive college prep school. My direct experience working with teenagers and my own experience of being lost cemented in me the drive to create a space in which young people could come to deeply know themselves—where the emphasis was not on competitively climbing a ladder, but on cultivating one’s wholeness in a supportive, honest, and rigorous environment.
Q. What brought you to Floyd, VA? What is unique about the area/community that has let Springhouse thrive?
A. Jenny: Our journey to Floyd has been filled with serendipity. We lived on our urban farm in Colorado for nearly 25 years, and after being inspired by a Virginia farmer and listening to a deeper call, we moved our family to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The community of Floyd is unique in that it is connected, generous, and rich with experiences of all kinds. The members of this community are very excited to offer up their gifts to young people. We could not engage in project-based learning to the level that we do without this community.
A. Joe: Floyd has a thriving local creative economy. Many artisans, musicians, organic farmers, and entrepreneurs have found innovative ways to take care of the triple bottom line—people, planet, and profits. Many folks here value real world educational experiences for their own children and/or willingly contribute time and resources to help a school like Springhouse come into being to produce the next generation of innovative entrepreneurs.
A. Ezekiel: Both sides of my family have been in southwest Virginia for many generations. When I first left the area, I vowed never to come back, mostly because I thought I was supposed to seek a better life elsewhere. When my wife and I decided to start a family, we wanted to be in a tight-knit, progressive, rural community that valued the land and its heritage. We both knew of Floyd County, so without much consideration or planning, we made a leap of faith and bought a small homestead here. The way in which we were welcomed into the community as a young family is similar to the way in which Springhouse has been welcomed here. Last year alone, over 40 individuals from the community gave nearly 1,100 hours of their time to our 16 students.
Our learners know that we are interested in the integrity of their personhood.
Co-Founder, Springhouse Community School
Q. How did you garner support from the Floyd community to start Springhouse?
A. Jenny: The support from this community is strong because those who give to the school get as much (or more) out of their experience as our students do. I can recall the spouse of one of our project mentors being moved to tears as she shared how valuable it was for her husband to share his carpentry skills with a teenager during his retirement years. Giving his gifts to a young person allowed him to feel filled up and grateful in his elder years. It is this fullness that community members experience that continues to bring them back to Springhouse and to share with others what it feels like to give in this way.
A. Joe: Floyd has had an alternative elementary school for over thirty years, and there has been a longstanding desire to develop some type of alternative secondary school here. After several months of public meetings and conversations about the idea, some local business owners offered a seed grant, along with a rent-free facility, to launch our school. Other businesses, non-profits, and individuals have joined in to help us provide a learner-centered education for Floyd’s teens.
Q. The Springhouse mission is to prepare learners for adulthood through individualized, rigorous, and engaged learning with the inclusion of its four value—resiliency, curiosity, integrity, and wholeness. What does that mean to you?
A. Jenny: Our learners know that we are interested in the integrity of their personhood. We see them as individuals with unique gifts, and we invite them to face their edges rigorously. If you walked into Springhouse, you would see our values in action. You would see students learning how to fail and how to recover after making a mistake. You would see students pursuing what they love. You would see students taking care of their bodies and their hearts, being asked questions about deeper meaning and purpose in their lives. And, you would see mentors drawing students toward their edges in learning.
Q. What has been your favorite story to tell others about the Springhouse environment?
A. Jenny: I love talking to people about failure. We cannot be creative without being open to failing. I often share with people stories of students who have failed and have learned from it. One example, in particular, was when a student was building a foundry to melt metal. He had poured all of the cement and water in at once and was unable to mix it as a result. He had spent his own money on the material and put a lot of work into the initial steps of building it. He became very frustrated and was ready to give up when an adult mentor stepped in and showed him a way through his mistake. Step by step, they mixed the cement in a wheelbarrow and successfully built the foundry. On Presentation Night, this student gathered community members around the foundry as he lit the fire and melted metal for the first time. He learned not only how to mix cement properly but also that, when you ask for help and persevere through difficulty, amazing things can happen.
A. Ezekiel: About halfway through this past year, one of our youngest students came to me and timidly said she had an idea for a project. She told me that she wanted to write a book based on a story she had been crafting for over a year. I was thrilled! I immediately reached out to a friend who is a writer specializing in teen fiction and asked if she would be willing to mentor my student. They worked to outline the book, set writing goals, and developed a strategy to make it through the entire process. After less than 5 months of writing, she had finished her book, which spanned more than 130 pages. It was incredible to watch this young person come alive—working with such dedication and inspiration—and to see the depth and commitment that emerged in her relationship with her mentor.
Q. What is your long-term dream for what Springhouse could be?
A. Jenny: I see Springhouse as a place where people from all stages of life can come fully alive, learn to live in connection with each other and the Earth, and be of clear and honest service to the world.
A. Joe: I have a vision of Springhouse serving as a year-round boarding school/learning community for teens and young adults—a living educational laboratory where teachers and administrators from area public schools and teacher education colleges come to see and contribute to the creation of a new paradigm of learner-centered education in a rural setting.
A. Ezekiel: I would love for our school to be accessible to all who want and need it and to become even more embedded in the fabric of our community.
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