Hidden on a beautifully landscaped plot of land along Tidewater Trail is one of Fredericksburg’s best kept secrets: Lighthouse Academy, the only Montessori, Christian High School in existence. Co-owners Scott and Stacie McClung took over the school in 1996, growing it from a small location downtown to the thriving nontraditional school it is today, with 112 students preschool through 12th grade. Fredericksburg Parent was happy to visit the campus early this summer and talk about the school’s growth and unique set up.
“Developing the adolescent program at Lighthouse was challenging, because Maria Montessori died before she completed her educational vision for teenagers,” says Scott McClung. “But I knew that Maria Montessori believed in hands-on work and real-life projects for students. I knew I wanted to get the kids back into the dirt and into the real world to help ground them.”
McClung began developing his one-of-a-kind, project-based science curriculum seven years ago. Carefully developed to meet Virginia SOL and school standards, the curriculum allows the students to get hands-on experience with their subjects in a NIPSA-accredited secondary school, without being tied to textbooks.
At Lighthouse, science is taught through four occupations programs.
Tucked behind the main building is a chicken coop and goat shed. Above our heads, wires are strung from building to building in an elaborate pattern. “Those were developed by our students to prevent hawks from killing our chickens,” says McClung. “You would be amazed at how many predators for chickens exist near our school. At one point we were down to four chickens. It has been an education in animal science to figure out what was killing our chickens and how to protect them.” Led by Ms. Dani King, the students built the chicken coop themselves and plan to build an additional enclosure this summer.
In the yard, several goats scamper around. “Snickers, Oreo and Coffee really engage the students,” said Scott. “Our billy goat became ill and died with an auto-immune disease. We had a vet come out and do an autopsy and explain to the children what happened. Our other goat was also infected and pregnant. If the baby goat nursed, the illness would be passed on. When the baby was born in the middle of the night, just about the whole school arrived to bottle-feed the baby inside the school for the next two weeks. It was a true opportunity to teach anatomy, because the students cared so much about the goats.”
In front of the main school building is a greenhouse that houses an extensive vegetable garden. Greenhouse lead teacher Ms. Danielle Euker teaches botany, chemistry, soil analysis and plant biology. Students use the produce for their cooking classes and just a plain old snacking. “The snap peas are the best thing in the garden,” says student Lydia McClung, handing this author a delicious handful.
While Scott developed the adolescent program, the heart and soul of the preschool and elementary school is his wife, Stacie McClung. She is a firm believer in each child wanting to grow and do their best. “I’ve never met a child who didn’t want to learn,” she says. “Our job as teachers is to look at a child and see how they are able to grow. Some need structure, some don’t. Some need to learn how to enjoy learning for its own sake.”
The Watershed Group began building a model watershed seven years ago, and then built it for real on the lawn behind the woodworking shop. “I could have built the watershed with the other adult teachers in a few months,” says lead teacher Mr. Kevin Hanna. “But that wasn’t the point. It took the students several years to get it right, but they built their own watershed.” They manage the waterscape while learning about biology, ecology and chemistry, checking the water quality, and monitoring the plant and animal life in the pond.
WIND AND SOLAR OCCUPATION
Opposite the greenhouse is an impressively large wind turbine and solar array, also built by the students. While we were inspecting the control box, a power company employee came by to check on the equipment that will eventually power the parking lot lights. “We originally planned to power only some of the lights, but the original turbine was damaged in a fire, and the students figured out how to rebuild the turbine so the whole parking lot can be powered,” says Scott. Students in this program learn about physics, electricity, environmental science and green energy production with lead teacher Mr. Josh Beveridge.
One of the more popular classes in the school is the hands-on woodworking shop. Students eagerly vie for one of the ten spots in shop class taught by Mr. Kevin Hanna. The day of our visit, an enthusiastic group of students demonstrated their techniques for making handmade cutting boards that are then sold in the school store for fundraising. The students work on various projects, building and honing their skills while advancing through the ranks of apprentice, journeymen and craftsmen. Trained students took down the damaged trees on the property, for example, using power tools and safety equipment. “One of the complaints I hear from employers when students graduate college is that they don’t have enough practical knowledge,” Scott said. “Our students have a wide range of practical skills, which builds their self-confidence. And our students are regularly accepted into competitive colleges like Christopher Newport, William & Mary, University of Mary Washington, VCU, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and Liberty.”
The Foundations of Intellect
The biggest difference between nontraditional and traditional schools, Stacie believes, is the foundation. Whereas traditional schools focus on writing and reading and math as their foundations, in Montessori schools, which have been around longer than traditional learning systems, “focus is on creative thinking, time management, self-control, self-discipline, executive-function, work ethic and community skills.” Stacie McClung continued to state, “These are all foundations that are crucial to learning and what you build on. The structure is completely different [from traditional schools], but it’s stronger. You can walk into my classroom and see 25 elementary age children working on their own, free to choose their own projects, but that didn’t happen without a lot of internal structures being put into place first. Montessori schools teach the internal structures of self-control, rather than external structures of rules or labels that can prevent a child from learning in their own individual way.”
Stacie says, “When students are labeled, they stop learning. When students aren’t labeled they can progress at their own pace and in their own time.”
“It’s a passion of mine to preserve childhood,” McClung says. “Children aren’t supposed to be quiet or still. But it’s not just blanket freedom, it’s earned freedom,” Stacie said. “They have freedom because they have earned our trust.”