Vail High School Teaches on the Slopes Students at Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy, a public ski high school in Colorado, are top athletes — many plan to go pro. They spend half the school day training on the mountain, the other half in the classroom.
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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

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

One of the toughest challenges faced by many high schools is keeping top athletes interested in their classes. So today, we visit a school where promising ski racers spend half of their school day on the mountain. It's one of the innovative high schools NPR is visiting this year.

NPR's Larry Abramson has this report on the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy, what may be the first public ski academy in the country.

LARRY ABRAMSON: It's 8 a.m. Students up and down the Vail Valley are entering the doors of the local high school - not freshman Abby Ghent. She's standing on the snow at Vail Ski Resort and a heavy, metal wrench in her hand. She's screwing a racing gate into the snow.

Ms. ABBY GHENT (Student, Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy): We're setting the course. We're screwing in the gates.

ABRAMSON: Does this take a lot of skill or just muscle?

Ms. GHENT: It just takes time.

ABRAMSON: These gates, those bright poles skiers race around at the Winter Olympics, have to be screwed in tight so they don't rip out when the girls come racing by. If they want to attend the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy, athletes have to be willing to do some heavy lifting and they have to stay ahead in school.

Ms. GHENT: You have to be really on top of it, something like know, like, all of your classes, and like know where you're standing and keep track of all your homework and stuff.

ABRAMSON: So you want to go pro?

Ms. GHENT: Yeah, I do.

ABRAMSON: Does everybody want to go pro?

Ms. GHENT: Yeah, pretty much.

ABRAMSON: It takes a lot of chutzpah to dream of being a pro skier. It's a small world, and the road to the top is often measured in hundredths of seconds. But first, these girls have to graduate high school.

Mr. BRETT DONALDSON (Coach, Ski and Snowboard Club Vail): Be aware. There could be a snowcap on the hill, still.

ABRAMSON: Brett Donaldson, a coach with the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, sends the girls to the bottom so they can't take the lift back up and start training. Even though the academy is a free public school, parents must pay for ski training.

Riding up in the gondola with his students, Brett Donaldson says skiing while in school remains a struggle. Skiers can't train at night. And the schedule is often upset by bad weather or equipment problems.

Mr. DONALDSON: As opposed to, you know, let's say, a basketball team. They go to the gym, and it's the same every single day. Ours is drastically different almost every single day.

ABRAMSON: So how do you find time for your schooling?

Ms. GHENT: We do it after skiing.

ABRAMSON: Back at the top of the run, the girls take turns attacking the course. Their skis fly by the gates, just millimeters away. And the heavy plastic polls 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. Hours later at 1:45 p.m., the kids have taken bus over to a local middle school, where the ski academy has been given space. That intense focus we saw on the mountains has dissolved somewhat.

Ms. MEGAN ORVIS (Teacher): Okay. So for the next 10 minutes, you guys.

ABRAMSON: English teacher Megan Orvis already has experience starting a new high school in the city. But this school is different, she says. When the kids come in, they're all amped up from skiing.

Ms. ORVIS: You got to give them some time to try to settle down and get their lunches out and eat something and…

ABRAMSON: You don't have too much time, right, to (unintelligible…

Ms. ORVIS: Right. So it's only for an hour a day. So this week is crazy. And then next week, we can start saying, all right, you got that, a 10-minute window just to make it, to kind of get yourselves settled.

ABRAMSON: In exchange for a shorter day in the classroom, students have a longer school year. But their schedule still faces a lot of disruption. This week, there's a world cup race held nearby, and students are helping out. Nevertheless, Jeff Grimmer, academic director of the school, says it's a huge improvement over what the kids faced before.

Mr. JEFF GRIMMER (Academic Director, Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy): We knew There were going to still be kids that were joining the national team no matter what education they got. But we were trying to say, well, what - how can we improve, kind of, a not-so-polished situation?

Ms. ORVIS: You've been getting them wrong, and I'm…

Unidentified Man: It's way past 2. It is so lame to pass out. I swear to God.

ABRAMSON: Two students are working kind of pre-calculus course offered through Colorado Online. With only four fulltime staffers, the ski academy can't hire a specialist for advance courses. Kristi Waring, who skis freestyle, faces challenges with her advanced French course.

Ms. KRISTI WARING (Student, Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy): This is hard. It's like teaching yourself how to do things when there's no teacher in front of you, like, lecturing, telling you how to do it. You'd, like, look through the examples? And that's just really hard for me.

ABRAMSON: The school helps students find tutors like Rosalie Hill-Eisem(ph), a local writer fluent in French.

Ms. ROSALIE HILL-EISEM (French tutor): You can't click on here to go anywhere? Okay.

What I think I like about this for students is that it teaches them independence. You know, the French lesson to them now is not just a matter of okay, we'll do what she says in 32 minutes.

ABRAMSON: And that's the challenge facing this and many other small high schools. They can offer greater depth, more personal attention, more flexibility where individual learning styles or sports schedules. But it's hard to offer the breadth of subjects. This school does leverage these students' power desire to keep skiing. If their grades drop too low, athletes can't race.

Academic Director Jeff Grimmer says kids are learning they don't have to choose between sports and school.

Mr. GRIMMER: If you look at who is pro, a lot of them have college educations. And so we're able to say to the kids, you can go pro and not necessarily have to surrender on your education.

ABRAMSON: Like any new school, Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy will have to prove its worth by sending lots of kids to college. But this small high school faces another measurement. How many medals can they win?

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

BLOCK: You can explore more stories in our series on innovative schools at

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