Alaska Charter School Students Learning, Playing Through Skiing

Steven McCarthySeptember 21, 20131
Dave Merrill, teacher at the Watershed School in Fairbanks, Alaska, runs with his class on the school's new Nordic terrain park.
Dave Merrill, a third grade teacher at the Watershed School in Fairbanks, Alaska, runs with his class on the school’s new Nordic terrain park. (Photo: John Carlson)

During the winter months at a K-8 school in Fairbanks, Alaska, instead of swings, slides and monkey bars, snow is the playground. And the principal doubles as the groomer.

Each of the Watershed School’s 200 students are required to own a pair of cross country skis and willingly use them as part of a learning-through-nature educational curriculum.

John Carlson is the principal of the charter school that requires all teachers, including assistants and aides, to possess basic skiing ability. Carlson hired Pete Leonard, head coach of the Fairbanks Cross Country (FXC) junior racing program, as a consultant to help teachers develop lessons for life-skill recreation instruction.

“We hired Pete as a consultant due to his competence to teach developmentally appropriate ski skills,” Carlson wrote in an e-mail. “In addition to working with elite athletes in highly competitive situations, he possesses a real talent for meeting kids at their level, both age and skill wise.”

Recess at Watershed will be even more fun when the snow starts to fly, now that an underused pile of dirt on the school’s grounds has become the foundation for a Nordic terrain park, complete with snaking downhills, steeps, rollers, banked turns and enough width to set up a slalom course. Conversation between Carlson and Leonard sparked the terrain park idea.

The terrain park, ready for some snow. (Photo: John Carlson)
The terrain park, ready for some snow. (Photo: John Carlson)

“Essentially, our goal was to provide a place for the kids to learn ski skills and technique in the school yard in an area of town that is quite flat, so the kids would be able to better develop their skills and be better prepared for going on hilly trails for periodic trips to other trail systems in town,” Leonard wrote, also in an e-mail. “Hopefully it is fun enough that a lot of kids head out there to play at recess and without even thinking about it are enhancing their skills.”

Carlson said construction of the park cost around $15,000 dollars, partially funded through a grant from the Alaska Ski Education Foundation. The total would have been higher had some of the additional dirt not been donated. Benson Excavation and Landscape of Fairbanks hauled in 70 dump truck loads and formed the components of the park.

A hoop to jump through, according to Carlson, came in the school district’s risk management department. The manmade hills aren’t big enough to build up too much speed, so the plans were approved without much resistance.

“The goal with the design was to provide lots of different terrain features and challenges on it and to be able to use it in many different ways,” Leonard wrote. “So hopefully the kids will still find it fun and exhilarating from the time they first glide down a hill on skis until they’re linking ups and downs and bumps and banked turns and coming up with new and creative ways to utilize a snow-covered pile of dirt.”

Watershed prides itself on complementing classroom learning with exploration. Situated in an already strong skiing community, the terrain park is just another way to keep the sport fun, while exposing students to functional learning opportunities.

“I think we’re always trying to raise interest in the sport,” Leonard wrote. “The Norwegians are the best cross country skiing nation in the world, and if you look at some of their initiatives of late, they’re still looking on how to take the next step. We’re nowhere near that level, but there is always room for improvement. Our club (Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks) is dedicated to the promotion and enjoyment of cross country skiing and this was a golden opportunity for us to help a school that has put a lot of pieces in place for that very mission.”

Steven McCarthy

Steven McCarthy discovered a passion for sportswriting in the classrooms of the University of Maine school of journalism. He earned his Bachelor's degree in 2010, while complementing his studies covering two years of UMaine sports and summer college baseball on Cape Cod. He resides in southern Maine and works in a private school for kids with autism. In his spare time he's training for his next marathon (running or skiing) or coaching at a local high school.

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  • pasqually

    September 22, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Students grades 3-8 in Stowe, Vermont have also been fortunate enough to be a part of a cross country ski program. This will be the third year that they are coached by elite cross country skiers of VTXC ( in the course of their regular physical education classes. The S.K.I.S. (Skiing Kids in Schools) program was started mostly to expose students to the sport. While Stowe is an environment perfect for Nordic skiing, many of the local kids had never been exposed to xc skiing. Their calendars simply were too full with basketball, alpine skiing, snowboarding, hockey… The sport had to be brought to the school. The S.K.I.S program is funded through grants and annual fundraising (Stowe Tour de Snow). Over 40 pairs of skis, poles and boots have been purchased and donated back to the school. Everyone gets to ski, as well as a young man with cerebral palsy for whom a sit ski was adapted to allow for this friends to take turns pushing him. The trails around the school grounds are groomed and skiers are part of games, drills, hill climbs… The program is a HUGE success, the children love the sport and the chance to spend more time outside, and we hope to see more talent emerge over the upcoming years. Read more about the program here:

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