As the Community School in Sun Valley—one of six distinct educational options available in Blaine County—was winding down its 40th year in the spring of 2014, David Holmes, Head of School, recounted the story of the school’s inauspicious beginning. It was August 1973 and Sam Hazard, the founder, was doing graduate work back East. He returned to Ketchum a couple of days before the new school was to open and realized that he and his fellow teachers weren’t at all ready for the students. Pondering what to do when the students arrived, Hazard turned to his new colleagues and said, “Oh, I don’t know … Let’s go camping!”
Four decades later, not only has the Community School survived, but it is enjoying a national profile and surging enrollment, which includes both foreign students and student athletes drawn to the Sun Valley Ski Academy, the school’s collaboration with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation. Perhaps more remarkable is the fact that the private school is thriving among a wealth of other educational choices in Blaine County.
In the independent school realm, the Valley boasts not only the Community School, but a Montessori elementary school
and The Sage School, which focuses on experiential learning and human ecology. The public system is equally rich in offerings that include a Waldorf-inspired charter school, a dual-immersion Spanish-English magnet school, an extensive autism spectrum disorder program, career-oriented academies and an International Baccalaureate program.
As improbable as it seems, these options all exist in a county in which there are only 4,925 people under the age of 18.
While Holmes easily laughed off his predecessor’s rough start, he pointed out that Hazard’s instinct that there was “value in being in the real world” has been with the school ever since. To wit, Community School takes over 350 kids into the wilderness for two and a half weeks each year. There are rock climbing adventures, winter camping trips in snow caves and river trips down the Salmon and Payette rivers. The curriculum is tied to the trips, but perhaps a broader goal is to instill a love of the outdoors and sense of environmental stewardship, one of the school’s guiding principles. What’s more, implicit in every outdoor trip is an effort to push students a bit out of their comfort zones, to develop their confidence enough to take risks and overcome adversity.
“There is pretty persuasive research that shows character strengths explain far more powerfully success in college and success in work than do SAT scores,” Holmes said. He sees the school’s emphasis on outdoor learning as contributing to a larger national discussion centered on the concept of “grit.”
Grit is a concept introduced at a 2013 TED talk by Angela Duckworth, a scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. Duckworth had studied varied populations: West Point cadets, participants in the national spelling bee, rookie teachers in tough urban districts and salespeople in private companies. Duckworth found that the common predictor of success was not IQ, social intelligence, good health or good looks. It was what she defined as grit: having “…passion and perseverance for very long-term goals … It is living life like it is a marathon, not a sprint.”
To this end, Community School is participating in a national study with 13 other middle schools to further explore the long-term benefit of relevant character traits such as grit, including optimism, zest, curiosity, gratitude, self-control and social intelligence.
Ultimately, Holmes would like to see reform in the college admissions process: “Let’s start to recognize traits that, in the long run, are going to be far more important than the academic profile, per se.” That notwithstanding, Community School has traditionally done very well in the college admissions arena. This past year, for example, all 37 seniors were admitted to colleges, and 24 of those were admitted to their first-choice colleges, including top-tier schools such as Williams College, M.I.T., Middlebury and Colorado College.
This success may be partly attributable to character strengths of the applicants, but it also likely stems from fostering elements of a good learning environment. Of foremost importance to Holmes are “a close and trusting student-teacher relationship, small learning environments, hands-on experiential learning, challenges with adult support and getting out of the traditional classroom from time to time.”
A Focus on Human Ecology
Perhaps one of Community School’s more illustrious graduates—particularly with regard to the area’s education scene—is Harry Weekes. Weekes attended the school and later became one of its most successful teachers. In 2009, and after 17 years of teaching, he left to start The Sage School, a 6th through 12th grade private school in Hailey focusing on experiential learning and student self-awareness informed by human and ecological responsibility.
For Weekes, the decision to start a new school was rooted in his own education and what he sees as problems the global community is facing. “I am trained in biology, so I pay attention to that world,” he said. “From extinction, to biodiversity loss, to nitrification of the oceans, to climate disruptions … all of these things are genuine, and they are happening. These (environmental) problems are going to manifest themselves as people problems: How do we deal with population issues, hunger in our community, marginalized people, different races?”
Weekes’ concerns ultimately crystallized around the notion of human ecology. “Humans interacting with one another and with their place—I think that has to be a consistent and persistent thread for as long as you have people in school,” he said.
The other founding cornerstone of the school is that it focuses on adolescents. This is because, as Weekes said, it is a time when self-construction is so important. As he explained, “That is the time when the window is open the widest.”
While the school’s curriculum includes direct instruction in standard academic areas, there is considerable time and effort apportioned to project learning. The school groups grades together (6th and 7th, 8th and 9th, 10th and 11th, with 12th standing alone) in part because it makes sense developmentally. For example, Weekes pointed out, the 8th- and 9th-graders are fully “social animals. Their social world is everything. They’re asking, ‘Who am I? What am I? What’s going on here?’ So, if they are in this social animal period developmentally, what are the things we should be talking about? For the ecology piece, wolves are perfect. Here you have this group dynamic. They have the alphas and betas and omegas. This is their social structure … and so on.” From there, it is not a big leap to appreciate and understand social structure and dynamics in humans, Weekes added.
Project learning also fits well with the school’s emphasis on field studies. Students spend five weeks of the year in the field. Weekes considers the school’s “campus” to be a 300-mile radius circle around the classrooms. While this is obviously a financial challenge for the school, it is a critical component of a school focused on experiential learning.
A significant portion of that experiential learning involves community service. To that end, Weekes has integrated two hours of service per week, every week, into the school schedule because, as Weekes said, “How you spend your time is what you value.”
"A Walk in the Park"
As it turned out, Weekes wasn’t the only one in his family drawn to education. His sister, Liza, is currently the head of the third private school in the Valley, Pioneer Montessori. Based on the educational philosophy of Dr. Maria Montessori, Pioneer Montessori in Ketchum is in its 35th year.
Perhaps most notable and a cornerstone of the Montessori system is the multi-age classroom, or “environment” as Montessori termed it. At Pioneer, there is a pre-primary class, 18-month-olds to 3-year-olds; a primary group, 3- to 6-year-olds; and lower and upper elementary environments, 1st through 3rd grades and 4th through 6th grades, respectively.
“Having mixed-age environments encourages mentoring, socializing and creating a community within the environment the children are responsible for,” Liza Weekes explained. Typically, a lower elementary class comprises 20 students, one lead teacher and one assistant teacher. The teachers are referred to as guides because an important part of their job, according to Weekes, is to “make sure you have someone to mentor you through weaknesses. All of the research will tell you that kids learn much more from each other. Kids still look at adults, no matter what, and say, ‘You do not understand me!’ It doesn’t matter if they are 3, 12, or 19. So, you would like to create a mentoring relationship with an older child where they can help the younger one through that block.”
All of this social learning and community building takes place in a classroom unlike what most people are likely familiar with. There is no central focal point, rather a room filled with Montessori-designed manipulative items and stations for learning. Guides roam through the space working with individual students or small groups for a three-hour work cycle.
A key tenet of the Montessori system is that learning should be self-directed. As Weekes explained, “The environment is set up so that kids can choose their work and what inspires them. Dr. Montessori wanted the classroom to resemble a ‘walk in the park.’ The idea is that when you wander, you get inspired by what’s around you.”
One of the reasons the self-directed approach works is that the guides practice constant assessments of their students. Every day they log which stations and areas of learning each student has worked on. And the guides are with the students for three years at a time, so they develop a keen sense as to whether there are gaps in the students’ educational development. One of the key tasks of the guides is to spot those gaps and to figure how to get a particular child excited about that work.
“Again, it’s for the child to have an experience to figure out ‘who I am.’ What is amazing is that the kids have almost a better sense of this than we do,” Weekes said. “They are trying to build a community, and so when given the freedom they quickly develop a sense of ‘who would I go to if I needed to tie my shoes, who would I go to if I needed something on the top of the refrigerator, who would I go to if I just wanted someone to play with.’”
Public Funds, Public Battles
With these extraordinary private school choices, one would assume that the public options in the Wood River Valley were rather lackluster. The fact is that the K-12 system in Blaine County plus the K-5 Waldorf-inspired charter school, Syringa Mountain School, are remarkable in their own right.
With the ongoing national debate about public education, it is important to recognize basic realities of the public system. For one, the fundamental premise of public schools—that they must educate everyone, rich or poor, gifted or academically challenged, able-bodied or physically or mentally challenged—is a Herculean objective. Second, because public funds are involved, politics are involved. So issues of curricula, budget equity, student and teacher assessments, unionization, tenure, and who controls policy (the district, state, or federal government) become not only contentious, but often paralyzing.
Money, most of which comes from the state, seems to be the root of all bugaboos for public schools. In 2006, the Idaho Legislature shifted the source of funding from property taxes to sales taxes. Consequently, each district now receives a fixed amount per student. That amount can then be supplemented by property tax levies, as is the case in Blaine County.
According to John Blackman, the assistant superintendent and director of human resources for Blaine County School District, state funding has decreased by 28% since 2008. Despite that, he told me the Blaine County School District is “more financially stable than most. Our taxpayers, through property tax levies, have provided us the ability to withstand huge cuts from the state.”
The annual per-pupil spending in Blaine County is approximately $16,000. Statewide the per-pupil spending is only $6,659, the second lowest in the nation (Utah is lowest at $6,206). By comparison, the highest spending is in New York State at $19,552 per student.
One advantage of higher spending is that it enables the schools to hire more staff. Consequently, Blaine County has the smallest average class sizes in the state, Blackman said. In addition, the county is able to offer a rich offering of programs. For instance, 6th through 10th grades can participate in the International Baccalaureate program, which has an emphasis on language and the arts. The schools’ band and music programs are renowned statewide. In addition, the high schools offer academies—vocationally oriented programs—in performing arts, residential construction, teaching and medical technologies.
Blackman also pointed to its Spanish-English dual-immersion program, the only one in the state. The 13-year-old program recently expanded into becoming a magnet school at Woodside Elementary accommodating almost 400 students.
The latest addition to the public system, Syringa Mountain School, will open this fall. It is a K-5 charter school based on the Waldorf method.
Mary Gervase, the director of Syringa Mountain School, pointed out that while the school receives public funds to operate and is free to attend, it differs significantly from other schools in the district. For one, the school employs “teacher looping,” a system in which the teacher stays with a given class as it moves through the grades. This has two advantages, Gervase said: “The teacher gets to know those children very well. You don’t lose any time year-to-year trying to figure out your class members and their capabilities. In addition, your teachers never get stale because they have to learn the next curriculum every summer.”
Another key difference is that technology is de-emphasized, particularly in the early years. “Our goal is to be developing the children’s imaginations. We don’t want children to be distracted by technology. We would rather see them using their minds and creating their own images,” Gervase explained.
There is, however, an emphasis on the concepts of sustainability and “purposeful work.” Activities such as animal husbandry, gardening, knitting and felting are employed to provide opportunities for experiential learning.
Perhaps most interesting and indicative of the school’s holistic methodology is the way in which reading is taught. As Gervase put it, “We teach from the whole to the parts. So, in kindergarten, we begin building vocabulary and comprehension through rich storytelling, puppetry and drama. In a traditional kindergarten, the teachers would begin with letter and word identification. Our goal is for children to be enthusiastic about reading, to want to read. And so for them to feel that way, they have to first appreciate language and stories.”
The New Allure of Education
It could be that the story of the Wood River Valley itself is evolving. From the moment Averell Harriman first reimagined a sleepy ranching valley as a shining resort at the end of a rail line, people have come here for the mountains, the streams, and a life lived outdoors. But now, it seems there is a new draw—the ability of parents to raise children in a healthy, close-knit community with exceptional educational options.
Perhaps the key characteristic of that allure is choice. Choice is critical because, in the end, we don’t really have a public consensus of what it means to be well educated. Some value critical thinking and problem solving; others, mastery of a specific body of knowledge; others still, character development and leadership qualities. The list goes on.
Education has become so contentious of late because what we choose to teach our children is in effect what determines the narrative of our culture. That realization cannot help but raise the stakes and the intensity of the discussion. Consider, for example, Wyoming, whose economy is largely driven by the oil and coal industries. The Wyoming Legislature recently banned the use of national science standards for its schools because they included lessons about the human impact on global warming.
While the specifics of education policy can quickly devolve into nasty political battles, the broader picture of our belief in education is more hopeful. It could be argued that the enormous amount of time, passion, and money that goes into education represents the ultimate act of optimism. Implicit in our efforts to educate the young is a belief that through all of our human errors and transgressions, we not only learn some things, but we value them enough to pass them forward. Somewhere in all of our collective cynicism lies the belief that the world is moving towards something better. After all, if we didn’t believe that, why would we bother with education in the first place?
BLAINE COUNTY EDUCATION PRIMER
The educational options in Blaine County are diverse, providing many paths for students to find success in school. What’s more, there is a wealth of youth support organizations that broadens the opportunities available to the young people of the Wood River Valley. From Wow-Students exposing children to the joy of generosity to the Flourish Foundation providing mindful awareness training to teachers and students, there are a number of extracurricular programs available that enrich the lives of our youth. Below is a brief rundown on some of the programs that complement Blaine County’s educational mix.
The Flourish Foundation is a social profit organization dedicated to promoting contemplative practices for the purpose of achieving mental balance and compassion. The organization works with the schools to offer mindful awareness training to teachers and students, provides community service programs both here and abroad, gives childbirth and parenting classes and has developed an initiative to promote alcohol- and drug-free lifestyles.
Wow-Students partners with nonprofit organizations in the community to create experiences of generosity for students in the Wood River Valley. Participating classrooms in the Valley design community-service projects to benefit a chosen nonprofit organization. At the end of their service project, students document their experiences in giving and present their nonprofit organization with a donation made possible by Wow-Students.
The I Have A Dream Foundation-Idaho encourages children in the Wood River Valley to become productive citizens by helping them complete their high school education and providing financial assistance for advanced learning. For example, the organization “adopted” the entire 3rd grade class of Woodside Elementary School in Hailey. The 48 students comprising the class will be supported in their quest to complete high school. In addition, the foundation has promised to provide each member of the class financial support to pursue advanced education.
The V.O.I.C.E. II (Vocational Occupational, Independent, Career Education) Program supports special education students who have completed their senior year in high school. The program, located in Hailey, provides 18 to 21 year olds in the county with vocational and independent living skills in a home-like setting.
Students for Seedlings is a project headed up by the Student Conservation Council of the Wood River Land Trust, a youth group charged with the mission of restoring nature in the Wood River Valley. The group’s current project involves raising funds to restore public lands in Greenhorn Gulch that were burned by the Beaver Creek fire of 2013. The funds raised by the students will enable the replanting of the area with sagebrush and bitterbrush seedlings that, ultimately, will stabilize the soil, decrease the amount of silt in the river caused by runoff and promote the growth of native species.