Fighting for better grades. Rebuilding community connection. How Summit County’s class of 2023 persevered through the pandemic.

Summit High School, Snowy Peaks and The Peak school all saw challenges and triumphs amid the pandemic

Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News
Graduating seniors from across Summit County participated in a parade on Thursday, May 25, 2023, filled with confetti canons, water guns, decorated vehicles and tons of signs.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

The past four years have been unique for Summit County high schools and the 2023 graduating class. 

Today’s seniors experienced merely a semester of pre-pandemic high school life before COVID-19 severed their social circles and thrust their education online. As students, educators and administrators adjusted to new routines, some struggled while others adapted. But uncertainty for the future loomed large for everyone. 

Now, school life looks much like it did in 2019. Classrooms are mostly full, sports have resumed and graduates are preparing to shake hands as they accept their diplomas. But in other ways, the pandemic has left an indelible mark. 

“It’s important to take space and really understand that COVID-19 has changed education permanently,” Summit High School lead counselor Kelly Finley said. “These kids, this class, they have experienced change in their life like no other current generation that I have worked with.

“If the pandemic showed us anything,” Finley continued, “it was how important schools are to the whole child. Not just reading, writing and math but the ability to socialize, the ability to connect, the ability to think of people outside of themselves.”

A success story

Linda Chavira, left, holds her signed letter of intent with Central Washington University during a college signing ceremony at Summit High School on Tuesday, May 9.
Summit High School/Courtesy photo

Summit High School senior Linda Chavira knew this feeling all too well. 

During the inaugural semester of her freshman year, Chavira enjoyed her first taste of high school with spirit week and the lead-up to homecoming. But for the coming months, those experiences were all she would have. 

“It was very hard for me to actually come to terms with it. I was a bit in denial,” Chavira said of the beginning of the pandemic. “Not being able to see my friends in person just took a toll on who I am as a person. Socializing is a huge part of who I am. I began to feel very sad all of the time. I lacked a lot of the energy to do any of the activities I did before.”

Chavira said she struggled with online learning, often finding herself distracted and unmotivated. Her grades took a major dip. The district uses a grade scale of 0.5 to 5 rather than letter grades, and Chavira was averaging grades around 2 and 2.5 during the end of her freshman year and into her sophomore year. 

But as soon as Chavira returned to in-person school, everything began to turn around. She joined the rugby team in her junior year and pursued tough classes, such as Colorado Mountain College and International Baccalaureate courses. 

As her social and mental health rebounded, so did her grades. This year, Chavira was accepted to play DI rugby at Central Washington University.

“I definitely feel a huge sense of accomplishment,” Chavira said. “Working towards those goals wasn’t only going to benefit me, but my family as well.”

As she looks to college, Chavira said she plans to pursue a path in political science and pre-law with a double minor in Spanish and sociology. She wants to become a criminal justice lawyer and “use my asset of being bilingual to help minorities, people that look like myself, who are often overlooked in the judicial system.”

And in some ways, Chavira said she owes her success to her experiences during the pandemic. 

“As much as I didn’t enjoy it at the time, it really helped me grow as a person,” Chavira said. “It tested me and my persona time and time again.” 

Kelly, the high school counselor, said she’s seen more seniors this year pursuing people-focused careers than ever before.

“A lot of them are wanting to help their peers and looking towards career fields that will allow them to make a difference,” Kelly said, adding, “We have seen more school spirit in the class of 2023 than we have seen in the last 12 years of being at Summit High School.”

Snowy Peaks focuses on connection

Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News
Snowy Peaks celebrated graduation with a ceremony at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. The commencement ceremony included speeches from each graduation senior along with teachers, staff members and administrators.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

At Snow Peaks High School, a magnet school for Summit School District students, “Every single student comes to us with a story,” said Principal Jim Smith.

“For us, I think it’s giving them the skillset and empowering them and believing in them so that they have the skills to be bigger than whatever story it is that brought them here,” Smith said.

“Before we even crack a textbook, we make sure that every student feels connected to their community,” Smith said. “That’s the foundation of what we do here.”

When COVID-19 forced Snowy Peaks students online, Smith said the school’s greatest challenge was maintaining that foundation, so school staff got creative. They drew chalk art on students’ driveways and tied balloons to mailboxes and hosted group lunches over Zoom.

“We did what we could to create connection when we could,” Smith said.

While larger schools contended with staggered days and hybrid learning, Snowy Peaks was able to bring students back for four full days of in-person learning thanks to its small student body of about 85 students.

“Being that the foundation of Snowy Peaks is relationship-based education, being that the foundation is that we get to meet students’ needs, that was going to be a really hard thing for us to do if students were in school two days a week,” Smith said. “We felt it was the right thing to do.”

The decision proved to be a success. The school saw a 97% attendance rate and managed to get all of its students that were eligible for graduation over the finish line.

On May 24, Snowy Peaks held its commencement ceremony where Smith said the community heard stories of struggles and triumphs from its 27 graduating seniors.

‘New traditions’

The Peak School hosts its commencement ceremony on the Super Bee chairlift at Copper Mountain Resort on May 29, 2020. Spurred by the pandemic, the event marked a new tradition for the school’s graduating class.
Liz Copan/Summit Daily news archive

Travis Aldrich, head of school for The Peak School in Frisco, said, “As we look back at the pandemic, all of us have created new traditions or embraced new opportunities.”

Peak School is an independent middle and high school that focuses on specialized outdoor education. With only 90 students across all its grades and a graduating class of five, the school makes intimate community experiences one of its core pillars. 

That’s why the school needed to adapt when the pandemic hit. One change included using Zoom time not just for lessons but as a chance to generate human connection, such as through game quizzes. 

“We were creating community by just having fun,” Aldrich said. “That was our way of reaching out to students.”

While a focus on outdoor lessons coupled with small class sizes allowed Peak to return to in-person education sooner than larger schools, Aldrich said there was a palpable sense of loss among the 2023 graduating class. 

For a time, the school had to forgo popular traditions, like its three-day outdoor orientation that takes students on various trips including high ropes courses, canoeing and paddle boarding at the beginning of each school year. 

But the school found other ways to bring in new traditions, one of the most novel being a chairlift graduation. Beginning in 2020, the school worked with Copper Mountain Resort to create a socially distanced, COVID-safe commencement ceremony. 

The graduation began at the base of a chairlift. After speeches had concluded, seniors and their families were invited to ride the lift up the slopes, and, at the top of the mountain, they were handed their diplomas. 

While longer-standing traditions such as orientation have since returned, Peak has maintained its newer ones, such as chairlift graduations, ever since. And Aldrich said the seniors have made the most of their time now that they are back to in-person instruction. 

“They’ve had a chance to see a lot of different iterations of what high school can look like,” he said. “The word proud really comes through for me.”

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