Freedom Mountain Academy

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

Freedom Mountain Academy is a one-room boarding school on a farm in the Appalachian Mountain — where troubled kids earn their freedom:

In traditional schools, students start with all of the ordinary privileges, which are then removed for bad behavior. At FMA, students start with few privileges but gain more and more as they demonstrate commitment and personal responsibility. That little twist from entitlement and punishment to earning and reinforcement rekindles motivation in FMA’s students. The curriculum reinforces this approach by rewarding students’ efforts—all of which is kind of like life.

When students first arrive, they forfeit their electronic devices and all use of electricity. FMA has this rule in order to “eliminate constant trivial pursuits,” said Margaret Cullinane, the school’s director and Kevin’s daughter. And it comes as a rude awakening.

Former student Taylor Meidinger, 16, of Packwood, Washington, said most students can handle the isolation for a week or two. But after a few weeks, Meidinger said, students miss their electronics, the outside world, family, and friends. They usually hate their new environment until they reach the two-week holiday break in December, when they go home. “At this point everybody tries to talk their parents into letting them stay home,” added Meidinger. “Then they come back for the second semester and start to realize what opportunities they have, and they start liking it.”

FMA also incentivizes students to develop a sense of collaboration. The first book they read is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which chronicles Frankl’s struggle to find purpose in his life as an Auschwitz prisoner. Students discuss the book’s theme of suffering and how it relates to their own feelings. At this point they go on their first expedition into the wilderness, where they live off the land for 10 days, learning to work with and rely on one another.

“When you’re out in the wilderness you really can see how we’re all connected to each other,” said former FMA student Travis Ackerman. “They teach you how to grow up and take care of yourself. They don’t just teach you to memorize facts but they push you to think of new ways to solve problems,” he said. Ackerman, who was sent to FMA from Omaha, Nebraska, had to work with his classmates to set up camp, chop wood, start fires, and cook food. Learning to cooperate didn’t teach him rugged individualism, but rugged collaboration. After completing this first expedition, students reach the first of four levels of achievement. Each level grants both privileges and responsibilities in return for students’ adapting and adhering to expectations at FMA. Level one gives them permission to leave the building at will as long as they stay nearby. Reaching level two means students can range farther from the building. At level three students are free to roam the entire campus. For more than 90 percent of the students, this level is the extent of their achievements.

A select few, however, reach level four, at which they can help teach a class of their choosing. Fewer than 10 percent of the students reach this level, though more than 95 percent complete FMA’s nine-month program.

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