The year was 1984. I had been in town for almost two years. I’m not sure of the exact circumstances but I ended up at the Wheeler Opera House to see a kid’s play based on Charlotte’s Web. At that time I had never heard of the Aspen Community School, but that was all about to change.
I am a sucker for good theater, especially musical theater. I can suffer through a kid’s show with the best of them and I think my expectations for the school play were not too high. After all, I did not have a child of my own. How entertaining can other people’s kids be in an elementary school play?
What I saw that night was much more than a cute kid in a homemade spider suit standing on a ladder weaving the words “Some Pig,” above a stuffed sow. I don’t recall all the details but I know that I was secretly weeping at the end of the play when all those bright-eyed children poured on-stage for the final number.
I had never seen a school play like this. The songs were original. The theme was a good home base but the script was all original, poignant and localized. The kids sang, danced, performed their lines and worked the sets. The costumes were outrageous. The audience was transported and transfixed — every performer and producer’s dream.
I was impressed out of my seat. “Charlotte’s Web” was the very beginning of what has turned out to be a wonderful part of my life, namely the Aspen Community School. The annual play at the Wheeler Opera House is a high-profile endorsement for the school and over almost three decades I have come to appreciate all that goes into the play and everything else that happens behind the scenes and at the school.
When my daughter was ready for preschool my wife, Skye, decided to abandon a career as a travel agent and seek something more. We were living in a 1969 Champion mobile home at Aspen Village. Skye crossed the river to Woody Creek and stopped into the administrative offices at the Aspen Community School. She asked if they had any openings and it turned out it was her lucky day. It just so happened that Executive Director George Stranahan needed a personal assistant and he offered Skye the position on the spot.
This was good on so many levels, but perhaps the best one was that Skye and our daughter, Riley, got to go to and come home from school together every day. Skye worked with George for seven years and Riley bloomed and flourished at this very different and magical campus. Everyone did.
I got in on the action and became involved with the school and the annual play production. All the parents and all the students participated. The Community School has very small class sizes and the parents are involved, especially with outdoor education and the play.
Seeing the play evolve from the ground up does not diminish the magic, it enhances the experience. Children are involved in almost every aspect of the show. It’s part of the curriculum. Building sets, teamwork, cooperation, design and artistic expression are developed as it all comes together. You need math skills, reading skills, listening skills and a team ethic to participate.
Academically, the Community School was perfect for my daughter. I was almost in awe of her work ethic. She’d get home, spread out her work on the dining room table and do her best until it was done. Then at dinner she would raise questions and discussions about really important life subjects. Each student creates a portfolio that shows their work for the entire year. The kids take a lot of care to put out a good book. It works. A tour of senior portfolios is a tour of another education style succeeding.
That work ethic that Riley developed at the Community School served her very well at Colorado Rocky Mountain School and serves her now at Bennington College in Vermont. I am very thankful to George Stranahan and the Aspen Community School. And Skye is now the executive director of Compass, which runs the Aspen and Carbondale community schools.
I now teach a high school broadcast class and am always delighted to encounter a Community School kid. They are all lifelong learners and it shows up in class and in life.
The Community School has launched countless positive sparks into the world. For that, we should all be grateful. The school is due for a redesign after 40 years of educational success. It has received a state grant for over $4 million and is now embarking on a campaign to raise almost $5 million in matching funds. The Skinners have just put down their largest philanthropic donation to date because, even though our kid has graduated, we still believe in the magic. This place works and we should all support the effort to rebuild the fortress of hope and learning that is the Aspen Community School.
Find out more about the campaign and the campus at discovercompass.org. Steve Skinner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.