Unique Aspects of Education in Aspen


Sasha Clifford

A group of junior and senior students gather around a first aid demonstration during Aspen Mountain Guide School training, led by Brent Maiolo.

*Originally published in the Snowmass Sun on November 16*

A group of junior and senior students gather around a first aid demonstration during Aspen Mountain Guide School training, led by Brent Maiolo. (Sasha Clifford)

From avalanche safety training to receiving a ski instructor certification, Aspen High School students are provided with many incredible opportunities and possible life-saving skills within the public education system.

The lifestyle surrounding Aspen, Colorado comes with an abundance of snow and endless athletic opportunities. Aspen High School is located right in the heart of this special town and at the base of the Aspen Highlands ski mountain. Surrounded by nature and wildlife, students have adapted to this style of education and have realized how fortunate we are to have access to outdoor, interactive learning. There are many advantages to living in a mountainous environment, and the benefits of the education students receive are unique to Aspen school and provide once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Garry Pfaffmann, a 7th and 8th-grade educator at the Aspen Community School, holds great value in this learning style. He believes that a variety of education contributes to creating a well-rounded individual and adds additional knowledge that would be difficult to access in a different type of community.

“I think out-of-classroom learning is invaluable. It meets kids where they are at. So many times in classroom learning where teaching is guided by a curriculum, the teachers select what the students should be taught and should be learning. Versus in outdoor learning, there are so many variables and so many experiences that are untamed and unplanned and there are encounters with the natural world that provides kids with whatever it is they are looking for,” Pfaffmann said.

The Aspen public school system prioritizes interactive learning and utilizes the beautiful environment around us. From a young age, many students are taught how to respect the wildlife in the Aspen area. This education is essential because members of the community are bound to come across bears, deer, foxes and other local wildlife thriving in Colorado daily.

“There are certain rules of the street that we can neglect and get away with it, but if kids become curious enough to experience and explore in the outdoors it is definitely the responsibility of parents, teachers, and mentors to be able to provide education about how to act around wildlife and the safety precautions around snow,” Pfaffmann said. “It’s part of being street smart.”

Brent Maiolo, a science teacher and outdoor educator at Aspen High School, teaches his students about the wonders of nature and provides them with unique curriculums, such as receiving their ski instructor certification. These certifications help students build their resumes so they can have an easier time finding employment surrounded by the outdoor industry.

“I love this class because it is so relevant to where we live. The skills we learn here help support students’ interests that are generally already learned from skiing to snowmobiling to climbing. I really enjoy the immediacy of learning in the sense that they learn really specific and detailed skills and then afterwards are now stamped and officially certified,” Maiolo said. “There is so much group dynamic, team building, and leadership in this class and the students really rely on each other to pass these certifications. I feel that because it’s not necessarily an academic class, that they come in with a different mindset and it is more relevant to real-world situations.”

I have lived in Colorado my entire life so this style of education is all I know. When I talk to students from other schools around the country about their learning environment, I feel thankful that this is the lifestyle I am fortunate enough to live. Not many students can say that before school they skinned up and skied down the mountain that is a five-minute walk away from school before heading to class. Not many students can say that instead of sitting in a lecture, they went on a class hike. This type of education has shaped the person I am today and I will be forever thankful. Although school can be difficult, I feel so fortunate to have access to a variety of opportunities right at my fingertips that increase the quality of individuals and overall life.

“I like variety. I love teaching in the classroom and I love taking students into the wilderness because I think variety makes students more interested and it makes them more interesting,” Pfaffman said. “It makes for a broader person.”