Before Jim Smith could become principal of Snowy Peaks High School, he had to interview with the school’s roughly 50 students.
They stressed to Smith that every day he would walk into a building, or rather a wing attached to Summit Middle School, where the students and their teachers are like a family.
“Bullying doesn’t exist,” Smith said of the school, and “parent-teacher conferences here are a potluck.”
The school’s inclusive atmosphere comes from its small size, its focus on character development and being active in the community and the way the staff strive to make students feel comfortable, safe and respected.
“When you have a staff who is so invested in the kids and so invested in taking care of a myriad of needs the kids have,” he said, “it’s easy for the kids to see that care and concern that shines through.”
Smith, 34, joins the five-member staff at Snowy Peaks High School this year as principal and English teacher.
“We’re super excited to have Jim,” said teacher Jennifer Wolinetz as she popped into Smith’s classroom Monday. “He’s going to be an excellent addition to our staff community, and I know the students are excited as well.”
The students who attend Snowy Peaks, the county’s smaller public high school, come looking for a different approach from the traditional school system.
Maybe they struggled with discipline problems or substance abuse. Maybe they are overwhelmed by the about 750 students who attend Summit High School; maybe they need a more flexible schedule because they work to support themselves or their families or they earned a few poor grades and still want to graduate high school on time.
Smith hates the term alternative when talking about Snowy Peaks, because by the state’s definition it’s not, he said, and the word makes people think of a place where bad kids go.
“That’s not the case here at all,” he said.
The school is held to the same standards as other public high schools with testing and accountability. The small learning community simply offers an individualized program for students.
As principal, Smith wants to keep combating stereotypes associated with the school and developing a positive learning environment. He plans to add social media this year and will work toward expanding options for students to include opportunities like off-campus internships.
For now, though, he doesn’t have plans for any big changes.
He hasn’t even sat down with his staff yet, he said, and at Snowy Peaks, collaboration is an absolute necessity. Besides the staff, “the kids have to buy in, and the parents have to buy in.”
A fixture at Summit High School for the last 12 years, Smith lives in Blue River and is originally from Pittsburg.
“I was kinda the football player who hid and read books,” he said. “Academically, I was all right. Behaviorally, I had my challenges.”
In 10th grade, his English teacher showed him that he could do better than the way he was acting. He went on to study secondary education at the University of Dayton in Ohio, and right after he graduated, he moved to Summit and became an English teacher at Summit High.
He spent nine years in that role, teaching 10th grade English like the mentor who inspired him. Then he worked for two years as dean of students and one as assistant principal. Summit High School became a home to him, and he will keep helping out the school’s football team.
But now Smith is excited to start at Snowy Peaks.
“I can’t wait to teach again. I love teaching,” he said.
He brings experience and a passion for working with kids who have struggled with traditional education. At Summit High, he taught two classes that instilled and strengthened students’ good habits, and in college he worked at a residential youth treatment center.
When he was dean of students at Summit High, he partnered with Brett Tomlinson, the Snowy Peaks principal for the last three years, to transition students to the smaller school.
Smith kept in touch with those students who are still at Snowy Peaks, he said. “They’re thriving here.”
Some students hesitate at first to attend the school. They don’t want to leave their friends or an activity like band that Snowy Peaks doesn’t offer. They must weigh their academic and career goals with those other aspects of their lives. Once they get to Snowy Peaks though, they don’t want to leave.
“Every student who comes to school here wants to be here,” he said.
They bond with teachers, sometimes texting them regularly, and thanking them at graduation for being strong presences in their lives.
Now on the other side of the interviews, Smith is working to enroll interested students before school starts Monday, Aug. 18. His phone has been ringing nonstop, he said, with parents calling hoping their children can attend.
He tells them about the class sizes of 10 to 12, flexible scheduling options, shorter class times and reduced elective requirements for students who want to speed through their core credits.
Though the school doesn’t offer classes like the acclaimed culinary program at Summit High, students can still participate in after-school extracurriculars there.
Off-campus activities, like volunteering, visiting local businesses or gardening, are built into the program at Snowy Peaks every Friday afternoon.
“Rather than PE, we’re going out and hiking Buffalo or Peak One,” he said. “A big part of this school is helping students find their place within nature.”
Smith, who might bond with his students over snowboarding or listening to live music, is most looking forward to helping the teens and young adults pursue their post-secondary goals and witnessing those moments when the students realize they can do more than they thought possible.
For more information about Snowy Peaks High School, contact Smith at (970) 368-1145 or firstname.lastname@example.org