Steamboat’s Emerald Mountain School blends science, language and the arts |

Steamboat’s Emerald Mountain School blends science, language and the arts

Emerald Mountain School geography teacher Jen Freund asks students Genevieve Spillane, Jack Herron and Max Marrs to check their map coordinates on Nov. 20 and report on the land forms they are studying.
Tom Ross

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — An enthusiastic group of kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade students in Emerald Mountain School geography teacher Jen Freund’s class  could hardly wait Nov. 20 for their instructor to call out their personal map coordinates so they could explain to their classmates the facts about the “land forms” they were assigned to study.

“Old Faithful geyser erupts every hour,” Tesher Feinberg said with authority.

And Genevieve Spillane gave a full account of the  pond scum, insects and snakes that live in her swamp.

If the minds of the students at the school  at  818 Oak Street in Old Town Steamboat Springs were on Thanksgiving break Monday, it was difficult to tell.

They were intent on a  large map spread out on the classroom floor. It was dotted with brightly colored clay landforms made by the students, each in its own lettered map quadrant. There were peninsulas, canyons, mountain sand rivers, as well as one very famous geyser.

For a private school with six full-time and two part-time teachers, multi-grade classes might seem like a practical  reality. But Head of School Samantha Coyne Donnell said the mixed grades are part of a philosophy that calls on the older students to be mentors to their younger peers.

“Every Friday we have a 15-minute community meeting,” Coyne Donnell said. “The kindergartners  and first-graders hop on the laps of eighth-grade boys, who mentor them. It’s that familial. They are big brothers and sisters. It’s deliberate and it’s something that makes Emerald Mountain School stand apart.”

The culture of Emerald Mountain is something new for Coyne Donnell, who holds a master’s degree in education leadership from Harvard University. Her last position was at the 500-student Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles, Calif. Over the course of 19 years there, Coyne Donnell was a science teacher, upper school director and most recently, assistant head of school.

She said she admires Emerald Mountain’s commitment to teaching every student to speak Spanish, not just to learn a second language, but to develop “cultural competence and understanding,” as she put it.

By this point, every parent of elementary school students knows the acronym STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. At Emerald Mountain the acronym is STEAM, to include the arts.

Case in point, the students are currently  studying the mathematics and engineering principles that underly artist Alexander Calder’s mobiles and stabiles.

Full annual tuition at Emerald Mountain School is $15,800, but that should not deter families from considering enrolling their children there, Coyne Donnell said.

“Since the school was designed by Nancy Spillane 25 years ago, we’ve provided a socially, economically diverse student body,” she explained. “It’s our belief this should not be a school just for families that can afford full tuition. We are committed to making that work – 30 percent of our students receive financial assistance.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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