Emerald Mountain School hosts 25th birthday celebration | SteamboatToday.com

Emerald Mountain School hosts 25th birthday celebration

Each fall, Emerald Mountain School’s eighth-graders climb Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak. Pictured, from left, are Dave Marrs, teacher and middle school outdoor education co-director, Eva Hermacinski, Finn Dresen, Piper Eivins, Aliyah Reimer, Thomas Faunce and Brady Fowler. (Courtesy photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Emerald Mountain School, formerly known as Lowell Whiteman Primary School, will mark its 25th birthday Saturday with a community celebration.

What started as one mom's idea to homeschool her children quickly turned into what would become one of the most unique kindergarten through eight grade private schools in Colorado.

When some parents discovered Nancy Spillane was going to homeschool and would take extra children, she was inundated with requests and realized people wanted another educational option.

If you go

What: Emerald Mountain School’s 25th Birthday Bash
When: 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3
Where: Emerald Mountain School, 818 Oak St.
Cost: Free and open to the community

Within one summer, parents and the community, led by Spillane came together to open the school in the fall of 1993. The original school was housed inside the old police station in downtown Steamboat Springs.

"Our very first day at the police station, (student) Chad Oliver broke his nose at the playground," Spillane said. "And I was like 'nooo, this is an omen.'"

She can now laugh at the thought. After all, Emerald Mountain School, renamed in 2012, is on its third head of school with money in the bank and enrollment up 20 percent over last year.

And, it has a state-of-the-art school it shares with St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Oak Street.

"Starting a new school is a Herculean task, and Nancy was a dynamo,” said Debbie Gooding, who has been an administrator at Emerald Mountain School since its founding. “She possessed boundless enthusiasm and worked tirelessly to see her vision through."

Hometown Olympic hero Johnny Spillane, who was in the first class to graduate from the school his mom helped build, is now sending his two children to Emerald.

"As a parent, there's so many amazing things about this school … the sense of community that everyone is in it together, getting their children the best possible education," said Johnny Spillane.

And then, there's the camping.

"My favorite tradition was the camping trips and trips you'd do outside Steamboat," said Finn Dresen, a former Emerald Mountain School student who is now a sophomore at Steamboat Springs High School.

Emerald Mountain School students Finn Dresen and Thomas Faunce ski near the Fetcher Cabins as part of a three-day winter skills program. (Courtesy photo)

For the past 25 years, the private school has kicked off its year with a three-day camping trip with all students and their families.

There's also a spring camping trip just for the students, and middle school students have the opportunity to participate in a winter survival trip.

"We'd camp out in the snow and learn winter survival skills like building fires and snow shelters and learning backcountry tips," said Canden Wilkinson, now a junior at Steamboat Mountain School.

One of the favorite traditions of many students and the newest head of school, Samantha Coyne Donnel, is pairing an older student with a younger student as part of a sibling program.

"Middle school students serve as models for our primary students," Coyne Donnel said. "I love how our primary students are excited to see their older siblings or when they leave a note or gift for them. It's a way middle schoolers can be leaders and mentors."

But Spillane said what makes the school great is the way each new head of school has taken Emerald to a new level. Sharon Mensing served as the second head of school, taking over in 2011 after Spillane served 18 years in that role. Coyne Donnel was named head of school to succeed Mensing in 2017

"I'm so grateful (Samantha Coyne Donnel) has just an expansive science background and brings that to the school," Spillane said. "My thing was always the arts and now having someone at the helm so strong in science … I'm grateful for my own grandchildren."

In fact, Coyne Donnel is adding a makerspace at the school where children can tinker and create.

"Students can both build with low-tech tools like hammers and drills but also have more high-tech tools like 3D printers and lasers," Coyne Donnel said. "It's integrating engineering and technology into an educational space."

The makerspace should be functional by next fall.

In the meantime, Spillane said her favorite legacy is the strings program, where students are required to learn a string instrument throughout their schooling. It's been the bane of many a student, even the ones who love Emerald Mountain School.

"I just didn't enjoy my strings instruments," said Canden Wilkinson. "At least I know how to play an instrument and can do it later if I want."

And as for the kid who broke his nose the first day of school back in 1993?

"Chad grew up to be a very handsome man. No nose issues whatsoever," Spillane said.

The Emerald Mountain School 25th birthday party will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3 at the school, 818 Oak St. The event is free, family friendly and open to the community. Attractions will include live music, games, food and a magic show by Amazing Dave Elstun.

Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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