Sierra House Elementary School students carve out curriculum in Ski Week program
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Education mixed with health, fitness and mountain sports make up the mission of Sierra House Elementary School. For Sierra House’s students, that means trading classroom time for time on the mountain with skis or a snowboard.
“It’s a huge component of what makes kids excited to come to school and excited to learn,” Sierra House principal Ryan Galles said. “They make that connection of learning life skills through difficulties, persevering through adversities, facing fears and getting beyond them.”
Through Sierra House’s Ski Week program, the school’s second- through fifth-grade students have enjoyed time on the hill at Heavenly Mountain Resort for days at a time this spring. The program expanded five years ago as a supplement to fifth-grade ski week, and now gives nearly 400 students the chance to get on the snow.
“In a mountain town, it should be something available to kids whether they’re from poverty backgrounds or their parents have resources,” Galles said. “In my eyes, it’s a unique opportunity for such a diverse group of kids to go up there and get experience.”
Sierra House’s second-, third- and fourth-grade students each had a week-long stint at Heavenly last month while the school’s fifth-graders will get two weeks on the mountain. The program is run cost-free through a grant as part of Vail Resorts’ EpicPromise Foundation launched last year.
“Heavenly has been awesome in helping to create the opportunities,” Galles said.
This year marks the first that the program has been held entirely at Heavenly. In 2015, the South Lake Tahoe resort picked up the remaining days after Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort was forced to close early due to a lack of snow — and the school decided to stay there based on proximity to its campus.
“It was amazing for them to do that,” Galles said. “They stepped in under difficult circumstances last year.”
Elementary school skiers and snowboarders started their week at Heavenly on the beginner’s hill at the base of the resort’s California side. By the end of their time, most of the students graduated from the magic carpet to the mountain — one of the main reasons Sierra House expanded the program.
“After fifth-grade ski week, about 40 percent of our students would still be on the magic carpet,” Galles said. “They wouldn’t be getting a chance to see what the lake looks like from Ridge Run.
“The earlier that you could start, the better it is for kids to build a lifelong skill and start taking some of those opportunities.”
While students work to master falling leaf and pizza, they can also take lessons from the mountain back into the classroom. And that’s all part of the balance Sierra House aims to strike with its focus on academics and athletics.
“There’s definitely that transitive effect that makes a difference in the classroom,” Galles said. “They have that shared experience of doing it all together and talking about those experiences when they’re at lunch or on the chair lift, when they come back to school, and even at home.”