MINTURN, Colo. » Off a remote road, the school in this tiny mountain town looks like any other small-town public school. Inside, high school and middle school students passrows of lockers in the hallways, study in classrooms and conduct experiments in science laboratories.
But at this public school, one student was a Winter Olympian in February and two others are on the U.S. ski team. Several were Junior Olympic champions, and a few earned titles at junior world snow sport championships. Many have relocated from all over Colorado to attend the school, and others arrived from New Jersey, Michigan and Virginia.
They have come here to the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy because it is considered to be the only public winter sports school in the United States. The academy, in existence since 2007, replicates the European sport-specific school model that has for decades produced numerous Olympic ski champions. The tax-financed Vail academy is required to meet state academic guidelines, but in the winter normal school schedules are turned upside-down — on-snow training all morning, then classes from 1 to 5 p.m. Some students are not in the school at all for weeks because they travel the world to compete. Academic workloads are more rigorous in the fall and spring to keep the class work lighter in winter.
“In the old public school system, these kids missed 30 or 40 days of school to pursue their winter sport,” said Geoff Grimmer, the academic director at the academy, which has 90 students in grades 6 to 12. “We had one of the highest absence rates in the nation. So the kids were forced to either compromise their academic growth or surrender their athletic dreams. Now at our school, they do neither, and that’s a victory for public education.”
Michael Gass, the Eagle County school district’s executive director of student services, called the academy an example of, “No child left behind on the slopes.”
The district’s partner in the venture is the nonprofit Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, which provides the coaching for the athletes for an annual fee — paid by the students — of about $7,500. But if students live in the local school district from August to June, there is no academy tuition, an arrangement that can save ski racers and snowboarders nearly half the cost to attend a private ski academy, or as much as $25,000 a year.
The academy, which has an application process to weigh academic qualifications, accepts students who want to participate in one of five sports: Alpine skiing (the significant majority), snowboarding, freestyle skiing, free-riding and Nordic sports.
“I thank my mom every day for moving to Vail,” said Skylar Chaney, 13, an eighth-grader whose family of six sold their Virginia house last year. “I liked my old school, but my teachers didn’t really understand all the missed school days to race in Maine or wherever. I don’t have to explain anything here; instead they make sure I’ve learned everything, or have everything I need to learn, before I leave.”
In the past, top snow sports athletes either attended one of about 20 private ski academies, where academic schedules are customized much like they are at the Vail academy, or the athletes enrolled in public schools and tried to juggle studies and sports
Shannon Moller, whose son, Grifen, is a seventh-grader in the academy’s free-ride program, tried home schooling.
“But that’s not necessarily the answer,” said Moller, who moved to Eagle County from Michigan and helps her husband, Mike, run an electrical contracting business. “And we wouldn’t have been able to afford the private East Coast academies. The public school academy was meant for people like us.”
To Aldo Radamus, executive director of Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, offering elite snow sports training to a wider socio-economic group was part of the reason he met with the Eagle County school leaders in 2004.
“Vail has an image as a rich town,” he said. “But a high percentage of the year-round residents are in the service industry. We wanted their kids to pursue their sports passions, too.”
In two years of meetings, Radamus, a former U.S. ski team coach, helped devise a schedule that included off-season conditioning in the spring and fall and a winter schedule that had the athletes training on Vail Mountain from 7:30 a.m. to noon Tuesday to Friday. They would attend class afterward. Nearly all of the students train all day Saturday and Sunday.
It helped that about the same time Radamus and executives for Vail’s parent company, Vail Resorts, were negotiating to create a state-of-the-art competition arena behind the club’s headquarters at the east end of the Vail Mountain trail system. The club raised $3 million toward the arena, and Vail Resorts provided its snowmaking and grooming expertise. Now, more than ever, academy students had the room to train in every discipline, including moguls and aerials.
Recent advances in quality, affordable educational technologies made the academy more viable as well. Online instruction tools like Blackboard and other programs make it easier for traveling students and teachers to communicate as if they were in the same classroom. Each academy student has a laptop, the classrooms are equipped with exceptionally fast wireless networks and computers, and Grimmer has made sure every faculty member has an iPad.
“Much of what we do wouldn’t have been possible 15 years ago,” Grimmer said.
Although the academy also employs a college counselor and a sports psychologist, district officials said the school was not a tax burden since the state reimburses the district on a per-student basis. The academy, they said, has helped keep more students enrolled in the district, so existing facilities are more fully used.
The school has a few inflexible academic requirements. Grades are e-mailed to students and parents weekly, and if a student falls below a 70 average in any subject for two successive weeks, the student spends the next week in study hall instead of training.
Sports specialty schools are not new to the United States, especially in golf and tennis. Those schools have many success stories but in recent years have often been criticized for professionalizing childhood and emphasizing sports over education. Vail academy officials have been asked if their model is not more of the same.
“My answer is that if anything, we are letting their value and perception of themselves be defined more broadly than just athletics,” Grimmer said. “The structure is there to make sure they feel part of an educational community as well.”
Several students agreed.
“We do some unusual things to make time for our sport, but the curriculum is still very demanding and the teachers hold us to it,” said Anne Strong, a senior. “We take a bunch of Advanced Placement courses and afterward we have to take the same standardized AP exams as the kids in regular high schools.”
Strong, who will attend Dartmouth next year, and her twin sister, Liz, who is going to Harvard, are among about 18 students expected to graduate in the spring. Faye Gulini, who finished 12th in the Vancouver Olympics in snowboardcross, is also part of that class. Nearly every graduate attends a four-year college and nearly all compete intercollegiately.
The graduation rate in the first three years has been 89 percent, which is several percentage points above the districtwide average.
Radamus is convinced that the Vail model will be copied by school districts elsewhere. He mentioned Aspen, Colo.; Lake Tahoe, Calif.; Stowe, Vt.; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Park City, Utah, as possible sites for a public winter sports academy.
Meanwhile, on a Monday late last year, each boy inside the Vail academy building wore a tie; the girls were also dressed a little more formally. It’s a tradition — no training on Monday, so everyone dresses up.
“I like the tie days,” Grifen Moller said. “It makes you feel a little different, but at the same time it makes all of us feel like we’re doing something special together. Because we are.”