Steamboat and Emerald Mountain schools announce historic merger to offer continuous K-12 education |

Steamboat and Emerald Mountain schools announce historic merger to offer continuous K-12 education

Meg Morse, head of school at Steamboat Mountain School; Nancy Spillane, founder of Emerald Mountain School, formerly Lowell Whiteman Primary School; and Samantha Coyne Donnel, head of school at Emerald Mountain School stand together.
Courtesy photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — With almost a century of combined history, Steamboat Springs’ two independent schools will soon combine to form a unified kindergarten to 12th-grade school.

Officials from Emerald Mountain School and Steamboat Mountain School announced Thursday a merger of the two entities, the first phase of which will begin with the upcoming 2020-21 academic year.

Emerald Mountain School is a kindergarten to eighth-grade independent school, and Steamboat Mountain School is a college preparatory high school with an emphasis on global experiential learning.

“It seemed like a no-brainer,” said Meg Morse, head of school at Steamboat Mountain School. “The stars aligned.”

The talk of a merger between the two schools had been discussed on and off since the founding of Emerald Mountain School, but only now has it become a reality.

Steamboat Mountain School was founded in 1957 as a boarding and day high school. The school originally bore the name of its founder, Lowell Whiteman, a local entrepreneur and adventurer. It was renamed in 2014 to better capture the mountain ethic and add greater visibility as it expanded its international footprint.

Nancy Spillane began at Lowell Whiteman School in 1979. She would go on to run the girls dormitories, teach Chinese and Russian history as well as serve as director of senior foreign trips. Her husband, Jim, was hired as a soccer coach, a bus driver, a breakfast cook, an instructor of algebra and world history, later becoming director of admissions and finally headmaster, a position he would hold for a decade.

In 1993, Spillane founded the Lowell Whiteman Primary School in Steamboat. It was rebranded in 2014 to become Emerald Mountain School.

Though once united by the same namesake, both schools have remained individual nonprofit centers for learning but often worked together behind the scenes.

“This is a merger of two families,” said Spillane, who retired about nine years ago. “With both entities showing strength right now, it’s the perfect time for a merger.”

At a glance

Benefits of merger between Emerald Mountain School and Steamboat Mountain School, according to school leaders include:

  • Continued commitment to small class sizes which builds close relationships between students and faculty.
  • With combined resources, the schools will have more to put towards students’ education and overall experience.  Administrations plans to maximize both campuses to the benefit of all students and school operations.
  • Provide competitive compensation and enhanced professional development opportunities for teachers.
  • Continued commitment to serving students from diverse backgrounds and financial circumstances.
  • Consistency in K-12 education enables a seamless transition from middle school to high school.

When she founded the primary school, it wasn’t the right time to merge, though it had been discussed, Spillane said. She would have ended up working under her husband and that wouldn’t have been ideal, she said with a laugh. Despite being discussed every once in a while for the next decade or so, it never was a perfect time.

But in the past 18 months, talks had been finalized and a plan was created to combine the schools, a testament to its leadership.

Spillane said she’s enamored with the two women currently at the helm of the schools: Morse at Steamboat Mountain School and Emerald Mountain School’s head, Samantha Coyne Donnel.

Emerald Mountain School on Oak Street in downtown Steamboat Springs.

“These two women running the schools right now … I am so grateful to them for their hard work,” Spillane said. “They have my full support and belief that what they’re going to create is going to be phenomenal.”

United in purpose and mission, the two schools will continue their commitments to academic excellence, socioeconomic diversity, the importance of community, outdoor and global experiential learning, and competitive skiing and snowboarding in their partnership with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.

The merging of the two schools will take place over two years in as many phases. In Phase 1, starting with the 2020-21 school year, the two schools will merge business administrations and create one board of trustees to develop a united and long-term strategic vision. Each school will maintain its unique identity, programming and teaching faculty.

Phase 2 will begin at the start of the 2021-22 academic year with the implementation of the school’s unification under one mission and one name, Steamboat Mountain School. At that time, Donnel will assume the position of head of school while Morse will continue on through the transition in a strategic planning role.

The two leaders expressed their excitement to work together and with their constituencies as the transition progresses.

Donnel said she didn’t exactly foresee a merger when she started at Emerald three years ago, but there were conversations each year about building a larger partnership.

A look at Steamboat Mountain School in its early days when it was the Lowell Whiteman School.

“Meg and I — with our boards — have been working for a long time on this,” Donnel said. “I came from a sixth through 12th-grade school. I really do love being around young learners and so that’s been new and exciting for me. … To see the progression of these students from (age) 5 all the way up through when you launch them into adulthood.”

Donnel said she looks forward to getting to know the Steamboat Mountain School community, staff and faculty.

“Steamboat (Mountain School) has this wonderfully rich history,” she said. The school has several long-term faculty that contribute to the strength of the school’s community and understanding of its history and tradition, she added.

Morse has been with Steamboat Mountain School for more than 20 years. She said she holds fast to putting the student at the forefront of an education.

“That always has to be the touchstone,” she said.

Dedication to students has been recognized as an integral part of the schools’ success throughout their history.

“These schools are really about familial bonding,” Spillane said as she indicated there are strong relationships between teachers and students. In fact, many of the schools’ alumni, Spillane still considers part of her extended family.

Those relationships are fostered by both schools’ cultures, she explained.

Both Morse and Donnel acknowledged the important role played by the Spillane family.

“We are where we are because of the Spillanes,” Morse said. “(The merger) is a great tip of the hat to both of them, as well.”

Nancy Spillane’s son, famed Olympian and local entrepreneur Johnny Spillane, serves as chair of Emerald’s board of directors and is a graduate of both schools.

“We are excited to announce this merger and what it means for the future of independent education in Northwest Colorado,” Johnny Spillane said. “The boards and administrators at both schools recognized the strengths and the undeniable alignment, in both mission and purpose, that the two entities have.”

With the pending unification, “We can invent in areas we couldn’t before,” Morse said. “It’s an amazing opportunity for us to think strategically about what K-12 independent education looks like in Steamboat.”

Morse said she’s eager to work with Donnel through the transition. She highlighted Donnel’s wealth of experience at all levels of education, strong enthusiasm and ability to lead conversations about education.

“You don’t always get these opportunities to sort of blow out the walls and look at why you do what you do in a very deep way,” Morse said. “As educators, we’re always looking for ways to improve education and the experience for students.”

The two schools will retain their individual campuses at least for the foreseeable future, with Emerald on Oak Street in downtown Steamboat and Steamboat Mountain School in a woodsy setting north of Steamboat on Routt County Road 36.

To reach Bryce Martin, call 970-871-4206 or email

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