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Private high school for winter athletes could turn public

Published October 30, 2012 11:21 am

Park City District • Soon, the students may study and train for free – in a charter.
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Park City • For nearly two decades, skiers, snowboarders and lugers have sought out the private Winter Sports School, tucked in the mountains of Park City, for a chance to polish their athletic skills and chase dreams of Olympic glory while attending high school.

It's an opportunity that doesn't come cheap: The school — which caters to teen athletes with its summers-on, winters-off schedule — charges nearly $17,000 a year in tuition.

But by this time next year, the small, private institution could be a free, public school.

The Winter Sports School and the Park City School District are working on a proposal to turn the private school into a charter school. If it becomes a charter, students will no longer have to pay tuition, and up to 75 teenagers could attend the public school during its first year. The school calendar would continue to run from April to November to give students, many of whom are competitive winter athletes, time to train.

Both school and district leaders see the possible change as a way to help more kids who call the powdery slopes of the resort town home.

"In a place like Park City, where we do have a large number of students who are extremely competitive in those areas, I don't want to lose those students," said Moe Hickey, Park City School Board president. "I think they're valuable members of the community."

Rob Clayton, who's headed the Winter Sports School for 11 years, said it simply makes sense to turn the school, which has prepared kids for success in both athletics and academics, into a public option given its location in one of the world's greatest winter-sports training grounds.

"It's for the greater good of this community," Clayton said.

Though school and district leaders are optimistic about the idea, it still has a ways to go.

The district's board recently voted not to approve the school's application to become a charter, asking the school and district administrators to work together to refine governance and financial issues. The board will likely reconsider a revised application in November. If it approves that revised application, it would then have to go to the state school board for approval. The state board would also have to grant the school a waiver if it were to open as a charter in April, as most charter schools must get state approval two years before opening.

If all that happens, the Winter Sports School would be only the second private school in the state to become a charter, said Marlies Burns, state director of charter schools.

And it would likely be the first charter in Utah to follow a funding model in which it received per pupil cash from the state and property tax revenue directly from the authorizing district, said Todd Hauber, Park City District associate superintendent for business.

A place to pursue medal hopes • Since 1994, the private school has been a solution to teen athletes' dilemma of how to balance classes with competitive winter sports.

Senior Fiona Morrison, of Park City, said she first tried regular high school and later online classes to give her time to practice ski racing, but she didn't feel she was learning anything. She said the Winter Sports School better suits her needs.

"If I had the chance to do it all over," Morrison said, "I'd go here all four years."

Many of the school's students, such as senior Nick Veth, originally of New Mexico, dream of Olympic gold. Veth hopes to make the U.S. ski team this year. Many of the students hope to follow in the footsteps of famous alumni such as Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso.

"Last season, I missed a few great races because I had to go to school," Veth said. "This winter I'll be able to go to all the good races and hopefully that will make the difference in getting on the team."

But the school isn't just about athletics. It's an academically accredited, college-prep institution. Clayton said about 8 percent of the school's alumni go on to Ivy League universities and another 2 percent wind up at other elite colleges, such as Stanford. During the past eight years, the school's average ACT score has been about 23.5, Clayton said, nearly three points higher than the current state average.

"We're not in the business to get kids through high school," Clayton said. "We're here to prepare kids for college."

The school's offerings are no frills: math, science, foreign language, history, art and English with no electives. The school boasts an average class size of seven students. It employs about 14 teachers, all part time. Most of the teachers aren't licensed educators, but they're all dedicated and hold degrees in the subjects they teach, Clayton said.

"I remember when I was back in high school, I was seen as a lazy kid who never did work because I was always out training," said science and math teacher Alex Burlacu. Burlacu doesn't hold a teaching license but majored in math, minored in physics and was among the top 20 math students in his class to graduate from Michigan State University. He moved to Park City so he could ski and teach.

Unlike when he was in school, Winter Sports School students, he said, have "the opportunity to not suffer academically just because they're good at their sport."

Changing into a charter • Some parts of the school, however, are sure to change if it becomes a charter school.

For one, the school — now housed in three portable classrooms near the bobsled track at Utah's Olympic Park — would likely move into Park City High, taking advantage of its empty classrooms during the summer.

Also, with district and state funding, class sizes wouldn't stay at seven, instead shooting up to about 20 students per class. The school would have to add some classes required by the state, such as health and career and technical courses. The 49-student school would grow to 75 the first year, eventually topping out at about 150 kids. And teachers would have to start working toward official teaching licenses.

The school's teachers, students and leaders, however, say the changes would be worth being able to serve more students — kids who can't afford it now.

"Once this opportunity becomes free," Clayton said, "there will be a lot more people interested."

District leaders are also eager to expand the district's reach, better serving students with athletic aspirations.

The transformation, however, would come with a price tag. In it's first year as a public school, the charter would cost the district about $350,000 in property tax revenues with enrollment at 75 kids. By its fifth year, that cost would have decreased to about $285,000, when enrollment would swell to 150 kids. But board members are now weighing the question of whether that would really represent a loss, because it would be money some say the district would spend anyway on students it's now educating or losing to other schools.

Questions also remain about how many out-of-state students would be allowed to attend. Now, about eight of the school's 49 students truly live out-of-state, but Hickey said he wouldn't want to see the charter give out-of-state students preference over Utah applicants.

School leaders and some district leaders hope they'll be able to work out their differences. At the end of the day, they agree, it's about helping more kids.

"My personal belief," Hickey said, "is that we should try to educate all the children of Park City to the best of our ability."

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker