Despite being such a rural area, Pocahontas County has a variety of ways to earn an education – five public schools, private school, homeschool, and since the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual learning. Now, there is another option, The Yew School at the Yew Mountain Center in Hillsboro.
Yew Mountain Center director Erica Marks and educator Zack Drennen have developed a private school for middle school students with a curriculum focused on experiential learning, utilizing the outdoors.
“The idea of the school is that it is experiential learning,” Marks said. “You get kids outdoors as much as possible. The middle school ages are a really important time in a person’s development, and they are capable of doing so much – physically and mentally. I know that some students really learn best by doing.
“By getting them out here in the woods – we have five hundred acres here – and that makes a really excellent classroom, with a pond and the creeks, the forest and the open spaces,” she continued. “I think that there’s a lot that we can do to engage them in a different way.”
The Yew School will be organized similarly to the old-fashioned one-room school, with grades sixth through eighth in the same classroom, learning together.
“We envision this being a small school and having mixed age groupings,” Marks said. “Kind of reminiscent of the one-room schoolhouse model where you end up with older students having more leadership roles with the younger students, and everybody plugging in where they’re able.”
Marks has wanted to open a school for decades. As a child of two teachers and product of public schools, Marks is not anti-public school – she has even worked in a few – but said she has dreamed of having an alternative to public schools that involves learning in the outdoors and being more experiential for the students.
“I’ve worked in public schools, but my early career and most of my teaching has been done in independent schools,” she said. “It’s been really interesting to see the differences and the benefits of having that agility when you’re not connected to the bureaucracy you have to navigate when you’re part of a larger system.
“I’m looking forward to having that independence and that freedom to just do it differently,” she continued. “Part of that is being independent and part of that is having a smaller school size. I’d like it to be accessible and it’s not necessarily going to be for any one kind of student other than it’s the kind of student who wants to do projects based on outdoor learning.”
The school is possible, in large part, due to a grant from the Walton Family Foundation through its program called Innovative Schools. Marks applied and received the grant in 2020, but had it deferred to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the grant was awarded, Marks and Drennen have been working on the curriculum and finding ways to integrate hands-on and outdoor activities with the lessons that will focus on the four core subjects of math, language arts, science and social studies.
“Just thinking about what lights people up with learning is when you’re doing things and when you can create a learning community that you really feel part of,” Marks said. “It’s not like a set of rules handed down or a culture that’s been handed down, but it’s something that you co-create with your peers, with your mentors, with your teachers. If you can be a part of that culture that you’re in, I think you really have a sense of ownership for your education and that’s really important. It’s not something you have to do, it’s something you get to do.”
In discussing the curriculum, Marks and Drennen use one lesson plan they have developed to explain how the students will work together and with their teachers to learn about bread.
“My background was middle school and high school, and I taught some math, and Zack is more of the other side with humanities, language arts, social studies and history, so when we started looking at this bread unit, I looked at it from the STEM perspective – science, technology, engineering and math – and Zack is looking at it from the humanities perspective.”
“Erica will speak more to the science side, but taking a concept where they will be looking and eating and making bread through the course of this unit, and we will be learning about different types of bread,” Drennen said. “Let’s take flatbread, which has its origins ten thousand years ago and was a part of the original civilizations that figured out how to domesticate wheat barley and really led to the formation of the first civilizations. You can see the Roman Empire was largely structured around bread production, as were the Mayan and Inca empires.
“So just having fun with them and exploring from historical and cultural perspectives what bread has meant to humanity,” he continued. “The breads that are made that are reflective of the agriculture that is possible in a given area, the crops that are possible and just having their own culture.”
In addition to using math in calculating the recipes and learning the history of bread, the students will also write about what they’ve learned in the process.
They will also learn about the traditions of bread making in West Virginia and take field trips to visit with individuals who are using recipes passed down through their families as well as visiting the McNeel Mill in Hillsboro to see where and how grain was milled.
“That duality is something I think we want to be able to embrace at the school,” Marks said. “It’s place-based. It’s specific to where they are, but it also gives that grounding to be able to see how that fits in a larger context. It’s the kids doing things. It’s the kids making the bread, making the ovens, growing the grain. That’s part of the idea of a lesson and how we’d integrate and differentiate for the different kids. You can imagine how a sixth grader could plug into that differently than an eighth grader.”
While it will be a private school, the Yew Mountain Center – which has been a field trip destination for public schools – will continue to serve the public schools as it has in the past.
“The Yew Mountain Center was founded and has a commitment to be a partner for all local youth,” Marks said. “We have done lots of field trips, and we’ve never charged the schools for anything. We go into the schools. We’ve done harvest days, and we take things related to our mission – most are nature-based programs– into schools.”
The Yew School will follow the public school calendar and will have the option of transportation provided by the non-profit Confluence, founded by Margaret Worth, of Marlinton.
Enrollment is open now and will be capped at 24 students. There will be two open houses for those interested in enrolling their children in the school: Wednesday, June 15, at 6 p.m. and Saturday, June 18, at 10 a.m.
For more information visit yewmountain.org/yewschool