Every day is a snow day for Sun Peaks students

Every day is a snow day for Sun Peaks students Jeremy Deutsch

By Jeremy Deutsch

Kamloops This Week

High atop the Village Platter Lift at Sun Peaks Resort, there is some learning going on.

But, it’s more than just how to stay balanced on a pair of skis or a snowboard.

These are lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic.

While most students in the Kamloops area use solid ground to get to school, kids in Sun Peaks can strap on their snowshoes or skis to get to their learning environment — the surroundings of which include the great outdoors.

The kids are part of a unique school at the resort called the Discovery Centre for Balanced Education.

“I think it’s really cool,” said Juliet McGauchie, a Grade 5 student at the school.

“I really hope they make this a high school, too.”

Juliet, who attended a regular public school before coming to the Discovery Centre, has found the biggest difference is that students get to use technology like computers more often.

There are also skiing and snow activities that can only be found at a resort.

The mountain is the playground for Juliet and her classmates.

In the winter, the students, who wear matching jackets so they can be easily spotted by parents and teachers when they are on the hill, can spend their lunch break out on the slopes.

The school started as just an idea among parents living at Sun Peaks.

Rather then sending their kids nearly an hour away to an elementary school in Rayleigh, they thought about creating a school right in the resort.

It would keep the kids close and give them the benefits of living at a ski resort.

A few years later, the idea blossomed into the Discovery Centre.

The school opened its doors in 2010, welcoming 21 students from kindergarten to Grade 7, all of whom live in the resort and in nearby Whitecroft and Heffley Lake.

In its second year, the school’s population nearly doubled to 35.

Madi Adams is a Grade 4 student who moved from Squamish at the beginning of the school year.

She admits her friends are jealous.

Madi said she gets to take part in all kinds of different sports at her new school, lamenting  it always rained at her old school.

The Discover Centre is essentially broken into two portables at the top of the lift, divided into groups —  kindergarten through Grade 2 and Grade 3 through Grade 7.

“You get to interact with all the other grades,” Madi said as she pointed out another plus for the centre.

The parents also like the school.

Dan Yano has been a full-time resident at Sun Peaks for 15 years and has a child in kindergarten.

He said the Discovery Centre helps avoid a long bus ride down to Rayleigh.

“It works out really well,” he said.

“We get to spend a lot of time with our kids, which is really nice.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by another parent and one of the centre’s founding directors.

“The thing that was really important for parents was to have community-based education so they [students] could make the most of what the mountain environment has to offer,” said Maria Cannon, director of planning and public relations for the Sun Peaks Education Society.

She added it was also important to keep the kids on the mountain rather than travelling to and from a distance school for hours a day.

The school is not independent, nor is it private.

The Discovery Centre is part of School District 73, but it is a unique hybrid using the district’s online learning program @KOOL.

Students attend classes four days a week and have the option on a fifth day to take part in community events.

A school day at the centre is also one hour longer than that at other schools.

Cannon noted the centre is exceeding the district’s physical-education requirement.

There are no fees for full-time B.C. residents and the costs to operate the centre are covered through fundraising.

Local politicians have bought into the program, with members of the Sun Peaks city council donating $30,000 of their stipends to the centre.

The education society managed to raise more than $100,000 to help fund the school in the first year.

Jillian Schmalz is one of two full-time teachers at the school.

She lives in Sun Peaks and jumped at the chance to teach at the centre.

As a newer teacher in the system, she wanted the experience of teaching students in multiple grades.

“They get a very well-rounded education up here,” she said, adding her students love the learning environment because they get to be outdoors more often.

The school has become so popular, parents from outside the area have inquired about sending their kids to the centre.

The education society has plans to eventually expand classes to Grade 12.