Jeanette Bennett, utahvalley360.com
Leaving behind old ideas isn’t always progress.
The Sundance Mountain School is a throwback to the traditional one-room school house, with 21 students in grades K-7 studying under one true character of a teacher, Steve Archibald.
Steve doesn’t look like the typical Utah school teacher. His casual attitude, environmental approach and long hair make him seem more like an outdoor guide than someone teaching the ABCs to kindergartners. But his uniqueness seems to be what makes the school work.
“Steve is remarkable,” says Jann Haworth, Sundance Art Director and one of the founders of the Sundance Mountain School. “Education is an art form, and he does an outstanding job in and out of the classroom.”
The school, which is in its second year, is one of the first charter schools in Utah and is under the wing of the Alpine School District.
Although the school is traditional in it subjects, the atmosphere seems like a cozy campfire chat, replete with slippers in the students’ wooden lockers.
“Students don’t like being ill,” Haworth says.
The children sprawl out over a plush map of the world covering much of the classroom floor. And the feeling is that these kids have a sense of what the world is all about.
The school room illustrates the interest in the outside world. A white board lists the temperature, weather conditions and precipitation. The kids gather the information for the board each day
“The ability to have the students out learning on the land whenever we feel the need (which is often) whether hiking, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing is a dream come true,” Archibald says. “We are a place-based or sense-of-place school, which suggests that students must be learning on and about the landscape each and every day.”
In a society where education often raises more questions than answers, the Sundance Mountain School is, not surprising to those involved, successful.
Steve says the secret to the school’s success is really no secret. The key?
“Parent involvement and support for our experiential, real-world, multi-age approach,” Archibald explains.
In addition to strong parental influence, community support also builds Sundance Mountain School’s ability to succeed. The Sundance organization offers a variety of resources in several subjects.
For example, the Art Shack offers professional art instruction for half a day once a week. The Nordic Center allows the students to use their trails throughout the winter as the foundation of the school’s science and writing experiences.
Sundance Farms has the students farm five 30-foot rows.
And the Sundance Resort lets the students use the resort property to conduct studies of flora and fauna daily.
In fact, the students, whose classroom is the old Sundance fire station, come to school prepared to be outside. Hiking boots, backpacks and water bottles are the norm. And the parents are more than happy bringing their kids geared for hearty experiences.
“My son has had an amazing experience,” says Susan Bisaillon, professional photographer who also teaches at the Sundance Art Shack. “I feel fortunate for him to be in this environment.”
The environment at SMS is based on teamwork. And the team includes a school board that spends hundreds of hours without pay working out details to allow Archibald to focus on teaching and the kids to concentrate on learning.
“Like a family we have had tough times and are growing from these experiences,” says Archibald. “We’re trying to place the school’s learning experiences within the context of supporting families, students and the community.”
As a charter school, students do not pay. However, with a waiting list more than 70 names long, a lottery is held when an opening becomes available. But with the original 19 students returning, openings don’t appear to come quickly.
And the students are as different as the eclectic visitors Sundance attracts.
“We have students who would do well in any school and others who this
is just the ticket,” Archibald says. “I think that students who have lots of questions, like to be active and who are on the road to being self-initiated learners are suited to do well with us.”
“The eclectic nature of the children and the multi-age factor add to their education,” Bisaillon says. “They learn and grow from each other’s questions.”
Archibald takes the naturalist approach to grading; for example, if a student does poorly on a project, then this is seen as a growth experience rather than a failure.
“Some people have trouble with that,” Archibald admits.
But the students seem to have no trouble being motivated to come to school. A typical day at the school can’t really be described as “typical,” but Archibald does begin with a schedule of what the day “might look like” and then adjusts as things develop.
“SMS tries to be responsive to teaching opportunities and magical moments,” Archibald says.
Students also have quiet time after lunch and stretching exercises.
“We have found that if we take time to stretch and limber up we do better as we go about the task of learning,” Archibald says.
While the students enjoy the day-to-day learning process, the overall Sundance movement also benefits from the educational focus at the resort.
“Sundance is all about improving the world,” Archibald says. “Mr. Redford and those who work with him have articulated the role that the school is playing toward helping to make Sundance a real community. Sundance has always been about creativity, exploring new ways of doing things, the environment, the arts and so much more.”
The Sundance Mountain School is a new way of doing things for most, but Haworth ran a similar school in England.
“The main danger is giving in to the pressure to be just another school,” Haworth says. “But we need to stay as creative and imaginative as possible.”
One thing Haworth helps instill in the curriculum of Sundance Mountain School is “revision.”
“The multi-age group offers revision,” Haworth says. “The kindergartners hear the older group learning a new concept. Although the young students are not ready for the concept, they hear the language and it sets a pattern.”
The students walk arm in arm into the trees to learn their science lessons. And, at the same time, they are preparing to be healthy citizens in the world they now know quite a bit about.