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Summit County launches new high school

Janice Kurbjun
summit daily news
Special to the DailyThe new Yeti mascot and colors of Snowy Peaks High School. The school is
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The Yetis, students at Snowy Peaks Alternative High School, officially launch their school year as a new entity in Summit County today.

The school is a merger -and reincarnation – of the former alternative school and drop-out recovery programs, and has gone so far as creating its own identity. But, unlike the old programs, Snowy Peaks has twice as many teachers implementing varied learning strategies for students who function differently than the traditional high school student. Principal Brett Tomlinson said the Snowy Peaks diploma is less job-focused than the drop-out recovery program, and is better tailored to the needs of each individual student.

Graduation requirements are geared toward students reaching a post-secondary goal of their own – but they’re also more rigorous than Summit High School, with four years of math and English required instead of three. To graduate, students must also complete a portfolio and a personal project.

The approach of Snowy Peaks staff is called relation-based learning, Tomlinson said. In other words, getting students to connect with teachers.

“If they don’t feel (positive relationships), they can’t get to the learning part,” he said, adding that sometimes it’s tough for students to connect in school when they’re one of several hundred students among many teachers.

Through academics, character, community and nature, students connect with learning and with each other to create a culture of dignity and respect, and demonstrate those values in the school and in the community, a school district press release stated.

The goal is to bring in 50-60 students this year, meaning the student-teacher ratio will be roughly one teacher to 15 students. Tomlinson said there are still openings, though students must apply and go through an interview process to become part of the school.

The new, independent high school of Summit School District was approved to open by the Summit School District board last spring. Full-time faculty includes Tomlinson teaching social studies; Jen Wolinetz as English teacher, guidance counselor and behavioral therapist; Tanya Kanning teaching science and Susie Dorle as the math teacher.

Snowy Peaks is nestled in a corner of Summit Middle School that can be completely closed off from as its own classroom pod, with a separate entrance for students.

“If you’re a kid that can’t sit still in a 90-minute class, Summit High School can be difficult because you can’t conform to behavioral standards,” Wolinetz said. “By the time students come to the alternative high school, they’ve been really wounded by education.”

Which means instruction delivery also differs at Snowy Peaks, Wolinetz said. It’s a more concentrated version of teaching methods directed to help each student succeed.

“Snowy Peaks goes deeper than Summit High teachers can,” Tomlinson said. The merger was born out of brainstorming under former superintendent Millie Hamner, who encouraged the school’s creators to “break the model” and go to a new place in education, he said, adding that the Snowy Peaks model is based off of extensive research and visits to successful alternative high schools like Red Canyon in Eagle County, Hidden Lake in Adams 50 and Yampah Mountain in Glenwood Springs.

“We want to make a more engaging and dynamic curriculum for students,” Wolinetz said, adding that more teachers adds more people to the mix, which means more possible relationships and more opportunities for successful learning.

Mackenzie Rogers thrives off the approach.

“It fits with how I learn because it’s personalized,” she said. “I may be taking the same class, but I’m working at a different pace.”

She looks forward to boasting the transcript she created to colleges when she applies study music and eventually become a music teacher.

“Colleges may be attracted to kids making our own standards and goals and then beating them,” she said.

Rogers said she didn’t mesh with her Summit High School counterparts because of the cliques, bullies, social standards and varying maturity levels there.

“Here, we have a mutual understanding we’re in this to get to a better place,” she said of Snowy Peaks (she also attended the former version of the school). The alternative high school fosters a family-style approach that means not everyone always gets along, but there’s an underlying respect that makes focusing on learning easier.

“We’re all here for the same reasons, and we connect through that instead of other reasons,” Rogers said.

Summit County has young mothers and wage-earners who need more flexibility, students with language acquisition and learning problems – as well as students from intact, stable families.

“If there’s a type of kid you can think of, we’ve got at least one,” Wolinetz said.

Rogers said it also helps to have teachers who, with a lesser student load, are able to genuinely ask about and keep up with students’ lives.

“Students leave their egos at the door and it really becomes a family,” Tomlinson said.


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