Choosing a Different Path

Kids shoes with arrows in front pointing 3 different ways

Students pursue interest-based education

By Suzanne Cheavens

Dan Noel possesses a quiet, radiant empathy that charges his every word. As an educator, it’s the kind of energy that fosters trust in his students and demonstrates his unwavering advocacy as they pursue their unique learning paths. Noel is the driving force behind Telluride’s new school within a school: The Miner School.

The 2023-24 school year is The Miner School’s first. The innovative program offers students who have a special career interest an individualized curriculum so that they can get some real-world experience and training before they graduate from high school. It essentially jumpstarts their professional life, and keeps students engaged by giving them options for non-traditional learning.

The Miner School accepted just a dozen eleventh and twelfth graders who, in addition to a portion of the school day spent in a traditional classroom, break off for the balance of the day to tackle career and technical education classes, internships, and apprenticeships in order to explore specific job and career choices.

Noel guides these Miner School students, each of whom is in pursuit of skills that can’t necessarily be taught in the format of Telluride High School’s more traditional liberal arts, college preparatory offerings. “We provide a lot of fantastic opportunities for kids in the academic challenge world, but we don’t have as many opportunities for students to pursue less academically rigorous career paths,” said Noel. “Getting into college is not as important to some students. And so, we created this program.”

Conversations about an alternative pathway for students more interested in hands-on skill-building were underway a few years ago. Then COVID hit and its lockdowns upended the classroom environment. The pandemic gave rise to a plethora of online learning modalities, an unexpected consequence that actually benefits Miner School students. Online classes in countless fields now take the place of brick and mortar vocational-technical schools.

In addition to their regular core classes in the morning and the specialized online classes available, Noel has forged connections in the community so that local professionals can provide real-world learning. “What we’ve tried to do here is to blend within the school to take advantage of the school academic setting, and take advantage of community partnerships to do some of the vo-tech training, and also to benefit from this massive push of online offerings.”

The Real World

One young woman with the goal of becoming a registered nurse is working with medical professionals at the Telluride Regional Medical Center. “Aiden’s plan is to go to college become an RN. But in the meantime, she can become a medical assistant as soon as she turns 18 and she can start working in the in the health-care field.”

As I’m chatting with Noel, a student comes in to sign out to leave campus so he can to go to Mountain Village’s maintenance and repair barn where he’s learning to repair any engine—from snowblowers to front-end loaders and buses. Another young man with a keen interest in aviation is headed to Telluride Regional Airport where his internship includes “everything from fueling planes to shadowing airplane maintenance to helping park and maintain the runway and unload bags…all of the Fixed Base Operator operations,” Noel said.

Noel said he is grateful for the community’s willingness to support the program and embrace non-traditional learning. “All of our students have really amazing internship opportunities with really strong intern supervisors and organizations,” Noel said.

This non-traditional pathway is, Telluride schools superintendent John Pandolfo says, actually not so much forward-thinking as it is a way of borrowing from the past. “I do think traditional measures will endure, as the value of in-person interaction and teacher-student relationships cannot be underestimated, and many students have shown they can still be served well by the traditional structure. With that said, I see it playing a smaller role as we move toward more alternative pathways,” Pandolfo said. “Please understand that this, in reality, is a shift to times past, when more young people learned outside the traditional classroom and through more experiential and hands-on opportunities; this has just been replaced for decades by a more ‘economy of scale’ industrial model. Career and tech ed (CTE), outdoor ed, mentoring and internships, and interest-based education are what we need in place to engage students and to prepare them well for careers and civic engagement.”

The modern component to non-traditional classroom learning—and arguably a direct result of the COVID pandemic’s disruption of in-school classes—is the explosion of online classes, classes that are crucial to furthering the career interests of Miner School students. “Everything in the world is on there,” Noel said. “That doesn’t mean that I think that’s the best way to learn, but certainly it is a piece of the puzzle for some of these students. We can’t offer a cosmetology class, but somebody can take on online hair and nail class, for example, and practice the things here in school. Flight school is another great example, right? Ten years ago could Gideon have taken a ground school class and tried to get his pilot’s learning license? No way, because there’s nothing remotely like that here in Telluride. The world has come to us in Telluride as a result of the pandemic. It shut us down. But then it has opened us up to some more opportunities that we didn’t have before.”

Despite the plenitude of online offerings, nothing, Noel says, can replace the value of in-person, hands-on learning. He is of a mind that without the interpersonal relationship forged between student and teacher, the full value of education is left wanting. What the student needs, more than almost anything else, is someone who authentically advocates for their success. “I’ve always believed in the teacher as a coach, as somebody who is a supportive member of a student’s life and learning, and I feel like everything else flows from that,” Noel said. “The only way that that I’ve ever really found success as an educator is when I have a have a relationship with the student. It all starts with building a safe, caring, supportive relationship. That’s my foundational belief.”

Pandolfo agrees and said that despite what the pandemic impacted negatively—attendance, the diminishment of the perceived value of education, and alarmingly, the enormity of mental health issues—it also highlighted the importance of in-person teaching. “So much changed about education before and after the pandemic,” he said. “There has been a quantum change in the use of technology, in positive ways as well as some negative. There is a greater appreciation for in-person contact relationship. Teachers use more and different ways of reaching students, including inquiry-based instruction, in an effort to engage the students they have in front of them.”

Pandolfo and Noel each share a passion for leading students in ways that suit each student’s unique interests and abilities. Both are life-long educators, drawn to the field in order to connect and educate, and not necessarily in a one-size-fits-all manner. Every student, Noel said, is unique, and the challenge is to reach every single young person enrolled. “School can’t be all things for all kids in one way,” Noel said. “It’s our work in the future of public education to make sure that we’re really reaching students where they’re at.”

Athletics and Academics

The Miner School is offering an alternative path for some career-minded young people, but what about students whose dreams of success involve neither a classroom nor an internship, but that of an outdoor, athletic pursuit? For some Telluride students, the World Class Academy (WCA) presents an ideal opportunity. School counselor Jenni Ward’s daughter, Pella, is a junior who is making a name for herself on the Enduro Mountain Bike Race Circuit. Though WCA’s non-traditional approach to learning made the school attractive to the Ward family, for Pella, it’s all about furthering her skills as a mountain biking competitor.

WCA offers a number of different options including mountain biking, kayaking, climbing, and kiteboarding. Calling itself a school that recognizes that “learning and passion must go hand in hand,” the WCA is an accredited private high school that, “combines academics, athletics, travel, and cultural immersion.” Based out of Bellingham, Washington, Ward said the environment has been “inspiring” for her daughter. She described a typical day for students there. “The students at WCA wake up, work out at 7 a.m. each morning, eat breakfast, and take classes for four to five hours before heading to the trails for their daily bike rides. When they return from the bike park, dirt jumps, or cross-country rides, they wrap up their classes, cook dinner together, and complete homework.”

The curriculum meets Washington State school standards, which Ward said align with Colorado’s standards. “She is taking courses that will transfer nicely to her transcript at Telluride High School,” she said.

For Pella, the benefits are innumerable. “I believe that my time at World Class Mountain Bike Academy will set me up to be more successful after high school and in college because I’m not only building my athletic abilities and biking skills, I’ve also been given more personal responsibility and independence and this is helping me become more organized and better at managing my time,” she said. “I am focused on my classes and assignments and, when I’m done, I know I’ll get to ride.”  

At WCA, Pella shares a living space with sixteen to twenty other people, which includes both classmates and instructors. They also travel together to various competitions, studying on the road. She is, she said, “learning how to respectfully share space and domestic responsibilities while also learning to take time for myself when I need it.”

Along with gaining life skills, Pella is thriving in a smaller class size. “With only five to eight students in a class, I feel more comfortable asking questions and participating in discussions. The learning environment is intimate and especially inspiring,”

A Matter of Choice

The opportunity for individualized educational choices is expanding, as educators and administrators grapple with the less savory fall-out of the pandemic. The rate of chronic absenteeism in  the state was 22 percent higher after COVID, and students who are chronically absent are more likely to drop out of school altogether. The challenge to reach as many students as possible has schools of every stripe—be they public or private—exploring new ways to engage and inspire their young charges. And they can be complementary to one another, Noel said.

Families in Telluride already had the public school and the small local private school (Telluride Mountain School), but The Miner School and outside options such as the World Class Academy are helping to accommodate all students with new opportunities. “I think that schools of all kinds can be really beneficial to students,” he said. “There are a lot of things that each institution does really well for their population of students. That’s not to say one is better, or that one is right for all students. It’s just choice…and I do think that when a school district and community and the country can become more accepting of the idea that it takes a lot of different kinds of settings to reach all of the students that we need to teach, I think we will find much more success.”

For students of The Miner School, they are there because they chose to be, via an exacting acceptance process. Noel is clear with them that it is not easier than the traditional curriculum; it’s just different—and that they are likely to have more responsibility, not less. It is that power of choice that has each of the students invested, taking ownership over their education. “They are motivated because these are all things that they have chosen,” Noel said. “This is something they are interested in.”