Snowy Peaks graduates lucky bunch
The number usually evokes ideas of hapless, ill-fated results, of jinxed misfortune. But on Thursday evening, May 26, it was the number of chairs up on stage for diploma recipients at Snowy Peaks High School’s graduation, and each considered themselves especially fortunate to be counted among the group.
The school’s first-ever planned outdoor commencement had to moved indoors due to stormy weather — the booms of thunder outside could be heard in the middle of the ceremony — so perhaps there is something to the number’s link with bad luck. But the rain and clouds were about the only detail that didn’t go to plan, and there were plenty of waterworks in the auditorium of Summit Middle School, not far from the adjacent Snowy Peaks High, anyway.
“Snowy Peaks is a real special place,” said Jim Smith, principal of the county’s other high school. “Other graduations I’ve been a part of have certainly been special in their own way. But to develop the relationships that we have with these guys, and the fact that we’re in it with these guys in every aspect — we’ve been through a lot — you don’t get that relationship at different schools, to that intensity.”
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Because of the relatively small graduating class, the format of the convocation — much like the school — isn’t conventional, either. Teachers from the program often described as “alternative” approached the podium and brought each student up one-by-one to tell the audience about their pupil. Sticking with a Snowy Peaks graduation custom of its own, the young man or woman was then given a rose to present to someone who’s made a noteworthy impact on their life and provided the chance to give a individual speech.
They commute from Fairplay and Georgetown and all throughout Summit County. They were sometimes dropouts on numerous occasions, many attending multiple schools before arriving to Snowy Peaks. One noted his criminal record in his prepared notes, others talked for being victims of severe bullying and crying in secluded spaces of prior academic stops. More than one wept tears of joy and struggled through their brief monologues — all odes to what several called a life-changing experience at this place that wasn’t just a school but a family.
“It’s about wanting something different,” said Smith. “It’s about wanting an opportunity to excel by their own path. People think this school is like, ‘Oh, they must not be good students.’ They just need something out of the box. And so this school empowers kids.”
Snowy Peaks, now into its fifth year, utilizes a blended-learning curriculum, mixing face-to-face teacher instruction and group projects with personalized online learning. The more holistic model is individualized, coming with it an intimate and unique approach where teachers continue to pursue those who fall off along the way, actively encouraging them to stick with it and finish high school.
When, for example, one of those students stopped showing up, each of Snowy Peaks’ instructors worked together as a team to hound her into returning. They called, texted and even consistently dropped by her part-time job in the county until she conceded and came back. That student was one of the 13 on Thursday night.
“Phew, you made it,” Heidi Pace, the school district’s outgoing superintendent, told the graduating class during the ceremony. “I know there are some of you here in this room (who) are still wondering if this is real. Well, it is.
“Some of you have had to overcome depression or dropping out of school or failing classes,” she continued. “These were huge obstacles that at one point seemed insurmountable. You believed in yourselves and your dreams, you never gave up no matter what others said and no matter how bleak certain situations appeared at the time. Always remember, you made it with this moment today, despite all the odds.”
Jen Wolinetz, who is in her final year as an English teacher and counselor at Snowy Peaks, left her students with the parting words to continue their educations, to get out and explore the world and to contribute to their community in a meaningful way. She urged them in graduating, to move forward and be kind and to use the gifts they’ve learned and honed while at the school for good.
“You have to learn to harness and understand your individual powers,” she said. “On the surface, these seem like easy tasks. But they can be some of the most challenging goals to accomplish. Each of you has had parts of your story that have been really hard. On those hard days, weeks and years, kindness has mattered. Go forth and grab the happy and successful life that’s waiting for you.”
Good fortune was not a theme of the evening, with Smith instead emphasizing the all of the countless hours and hard work it took to get to that stage. He prompted all those who made the choice to pass through the school’s doors to carry on following Snowy Peaks’ mantra: “Be legendary.”
“What an amazing thing that we have,” he said. “It is you (who) became the stuff of legends. Continue to break the barriers that hold most people back. Continue to be legendary.”
And in hearing those words, this year’s graduates from Snowy Peaks, at least for one night, forgot about life’s challenges, difficulties and hang-ups. In so doing, they beamed a sense of pride in their accomplishment and in being a member of a select few in Summit County that evening — each of them feeling lucky to be associated with the number 13.
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