Sitting at his desk in the spring of 2017, FernLeaf Community Charter School's first year, contemplating "cool things we could do outside," Michael Luplow thought "how amazing it would be to get the entire school to the top of Bearwallow Mountain?" he remembered.
The iconic Henderson County mountain, Bearwallow Mountain is seated in the Hickory Nut Gorge between Fairview and Lake Lure, and is an accessible and popular destination in the area. Not far from the school, the mountain has "a reasonably challenging but short one-mile hike with a massive payoff at the top," Michael said. For students who couldn't make the hike by foot, the mountain also has a gravel road for cars to the top, ensuring that the entire school community could enjoy the open space and wide views.
When the school reached out to Conserving Carolina, a non-profit that works to "protect, restore and inspire appreciation of the natural world" in Henderson and several neighboring counties, a relationship was created that continues to positively affect the FernLeaf community while also rippling out in expanding circles beyond the FernLeaf walls.
Conserving Carolina, which helped establish a conservation easement on the privately-held Bearwallow Mountain, loved the idea of having an entire school on the mountain so much that it has provided (and continues to provide) logistic and volunteer support to the FernLeaf project.
In a flurry of phone calls and meetings, busses were secured, volunteers assigned, and port-a-potties placed. At the end of the day, 176 FernLeaf students, the school's staff and community volunteers made their way up the trail. That first trip was the foundation for what has become an annual tradition for FernLeaf.
As the school grew, however, the tradition evolved and changed with it. Embracing FernLeaf's mission to "foster a rich learning environment that embodies the essence of community," the trip to Bearwallow Mountain now gives students an opportunity to meet in mixed-grade small groups. While the school did not make the trip in 2020/2021 due to the pandemic, previous years saw kindergarten students hiking alongside fifth graders alongside a third grade teacher alongside an AmeriCorps volunteer.
Preparations for the trip gave the small groups a chance to work on team building as much as plant identification. At the top of the hike, looking out over miles and miles of land and sky stretching before them, the small groups became one group and enjoyed several moments of guided mindfulness, bespoke sing-alongs and community-wide photographs. The Bearwallow Mountain tradition is not about one thing, it's about all the things that make FernLeaf unique.
Conserving Carolina, with its close connection to the project, saw that clearly. It was so inspired by the results that it reached out to several public and private schools in the area to offer them the same opportunity. "This is one of the ways that charter schools, and FernLeaf in particular, are setting examples for other schools," Michael said. "I am proud to know that other kids in our wider community, kids who might not otherwise have a chance to do something like this, are getting to the top of that mountain."
This year, the trip up Bearwallow Mountain will look different, but the same. With over 450 students, it is neither logistically possible, nor ethically responsible, for the entire school to be there together. Students will still be grouped in mixed-age teams. They will still have a chance before and during the trip to develop both teamwork and understand the importance of trail etiquette and responsible recreation. They will just do it over two days.
With its new fleet of not-new busses, the school will transport half the students one day and half the next. Michael isn't sure what Eric Scheider's mindfulness committee will create for this year's big group mindfulness time, but he knows he will take a mindful moment along with the students at the summit. After all, it doesn't get much better than doing cool things together outside.