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Vail High School Teaches on the Slopes

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Vail High School Teaches on the Slopes

Vail High School Teaches on the Slopes

Vail High School Teaches on the Slopes

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Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy (VSSA) is co-ed, but male and female athletes train separately. Academy students also train with students from other area schools. Pictured from left are: Jocelyn Irwin (from Vail Mountain School), Christa Ghent (VSSA), Kaytlyn Samuelson (VSSA), Whitney Setterberg (VSSA), Abby Ghent (VSSA), and Erika Ghent (post-graduate). Larry Abramson, NPR hide caption

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Larry Abramson, NPR

Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy (VSSA) is co-ed, but male and female athletes train separately. Academy students also train with students from other area schools. Pictured from left are: Jocelyn Irwin (from Vail Mountain School), Christa Ghent (VSSA), Kaytlyn Samuelson (VSSA), Whitney Setterberg (VSSA), Abby Ghent (VSSA), Erika Ghent (post-graduate) and Haley Zaik-Hodgkins (Vail Valley Tutorial Academy).

Larry Abramson, NPR

VSSA has been given space to conduct classes at a middle school, and students have to be creative with their limited space. Students on the right are doing chemistry while Kristi Waring (left) works on an online French course. Larry Abramson, NPR hide caption

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Larry Abramson, NPR

middle school, and students have to be creative with their limited space. Students on the right are doing chemistry while Kristi Waring (left) works on an online French course with her tutor, Rosealie Hill Isom.

Larry Abramson, NPR

VSSA Goals

  • Prepare students for world-class athletic events and for educational endeavors

  • Keep classes small and flexible to accommodate students at different levels
  • Take advantage of online offerings

One of the toughest challenges faced by many high schools is keeping top athletes interested in academics.

But in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, a new school has developed a way to teach and train promising young ski racers. Students at the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy (VSSA) spend half of their day on the mountain and the other half in the classroom.

VSSA may be the first public ski academy in the country.

Plans to Go Pro

At 8 a.m., students up and down the Vail Valley in Colorado are entering the doors of the local high school.

But not freshman Abby Ghent. She is standing on the snow at Vail Ski Resort and using a heavy, metal wrench to screw a racing gate into the snow. The gates — the bright poles that skiers race around at the Winter Olympics — have to be screwed in tight so they don't rip out when the girls come racing down the mountain.

If they want to attend the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy, these girls have to be willing to do dirty work like this, carry a lot of gear and stay ahead in school.

"You have to be really on top of it. Like, know all your classes, know where you're standing, keep track of all your homework and stuff," Abby said.

Abby, like most girls at the school, wants to go pro.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to dream of being a pro skier. The competition is fierce, and the road to the top is often measured in hundredths of seconds.

And first, these students have to graduate from high school.

This school, which enrolls students in grades 8 through 12, leverages students' powerful desire to keep skiing: If their grades drop too low, athletes can't race.

Even though VSSA is a free public school, parents must pay the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail for ski training.

Brett Donaldson, a Ski and Snowboard Club Vail coach, says that skiing while in school remains a struggle. Skiers can't train at night. What's more, their schedule is often upset by bad weather and equipment problems.

"As opposed to, let's say, a basketball team. They go to the gym, and it's the same every day," Donaldson said. "Ours is drastically different every single day."

Amped from Skiing

At the top of the run, the girls take turns attacking the course. Their skis fly by the gates and the heavy, plastic poles snap against their shin guards, echoing in the cold air.

They ski like no one else on the mountain — their legs like unbreakable rubber bands, snapping from side to side. Whether they're racing or not, they seem to go as fast as they can.

But at 1:45 p.m., students pile on to a bus to a local middle school, where the ski academy has been given space to conduct classes. The girls' intense focus on the mountains has dissolved as they transition from the mountain to the classroom.

English teacher Megan Orvis already has experience starting a new high school. But this school is different, she says. For example, when the students arrive, they're all amped from skiing.

Orvis said she needs to give the students time to settle down by eating their lunches.

But with only four hours spent in the classroom each day, there isn't much time.

In exchange for a shorter day in the classroom, students face a longer school year. But their schedules still face a lot of disruption. The week NPR visited the students, there was a World Cup race nearby, and VSSA students helped out.

Nevertheless, Jeff Grimmer, academic director of the school, says it's a huge improvement over the displacements that students commonly faced before the school opened this year.

"We knew there were going to still be kids joining the national team, no matter what education they got. But we were trying to say, 'How can we improve a not-so-polished situation?'"

An Experiment

The school's small size offers many advantages and helps accommodate the athletes' unpredictable schedules.

But as with many small schools, VSSA can't always offer the breadth of courses that a big school can. With only three full-time teachers, the school can't hire specialists for advanced courses.

Student Kristi Waring, who skis freestyle, faces challenges with her advanced French course, which she takes online.

"It's just hard teaching yourself how to do things when there's no teacher in front of you lecturing," Waring said. "It's just really hard for me."

Waring's determination to compete in her sport shows just how deep students' commitment runs. Until this year, Waring was going to school in Denver and commuting to training sessions in Vail. But her coaches told her that if she wanted to compete, she needed to move closer to Vail. So she did. Her mother rents a duplex in Vail and drives back and forth to Denver on a regular basis.

The family says this is a big experiment for them. The same goes for this school.