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A Utah Mountain Town Brings Back an Old Idea: The One-Room Schoolhouse

As a throwback ski destination, Alta, thinks small, with a one-room public school to match.

WHY WE’RE HERE

We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In Utah, a one-room schoolhouse has helped preserve the family atmosphere of a cult-favorite ski town.


As long as it has had a ski resort, Alta, Utah, has been a place where young people come to work for a season before starting life in the real world, then end up staying for two or 10 or 20 years — even a lifetime.

They come for the powder snow, which regularly tops lists of the deepest and lightest in the country. They discover the simplicity and warmth of life in a town at the dead end of a box canyon with a year-round population of roughly 300.

But a little more than 20 years ago, town officials realized that as much as Alta prided itself on being a place where generations of families return to vacation every year, it was losing families among the employees who make it run. Young people who had children left because there was no school, and the closest school district would not send a bus up the narrow canyon road.

Known as a throwback ski town, Alta turned to a throwback solution, opening a one-room public school in a former storage room in a lodge at the base of the mountain. Now, the Alta School not only educates the children of the ticket sellers, avalanche forecasters, hotel reservationists and chai latte makers, it is also a source of town pride.

The annual play written and performed by students at Our Lady of Snows, the town’s worship and gathering center, attracts a standing-room-only crowd, more than can be explained as proud parents alone. Students publish a monthly newspaper, visiting the lodges and ski shops to sell ads they design.

“It might be an overstatement,” Roger Bourke, the mayor of Alta, said, “but it ties the community together.”

Less than a century ago, there were about 139,000 one-room public schools in the United States; at last official count, in 2022, there were 166, mostly in rural areas where the nearest district is too far for students to travel each day. In Alta, the closest school is just 13 miles away, in a suburb of Salt Lake City. But the winding road up Little Cottonwood Canyon closes frequently because of avalanche danger — more than 30 times last year, when Alta had 903 inches of snow.

Beyond eliminating the treacherous commute, the school helps in the ongoing struggle to, as Mr. Bourke said, “Keep Alta Alta.” While other ski resorts have been bought up by conglomerates and developed with condos, Alta, founded in 1938, is still owned by the same families that have owned it for generations, and hardly more developed than in its earliest days as a silver mining town. There is no nightlife, no stoplight and no snowboarders allowed. Alta, as the T-shirts say, is for skiers.

The town, just four square miles, centers on the resort, and occupies mostly National Forest Service property; it has fought attempts to develop what private land there is. Signs up the canyon and stickers on skis declare opposition to a gondola the State Department of Transportation has proposed building to ferry bigger crowds up the canyon.

“It’s a different pace of life in today’s hustle and bustle,” said Brian Babbitt, a ski patroller, picking up his daughters, Miles and Collyns, after school. “They can focus on different qualities of life, recreating and being in nature, not being so stuck on a screen or a computer.”

The girls are 6 and 8 now. “They’ve been skiing on their own since they were 3 and 5, though my wife would say it’s 4 and 6,” Mr. Babbitt said. “I know 100 people by first name on the mountain, so they’re constantly being watched.” (“Really?” Miles asked.)

Most skiers visiting Alta would have no idea the school exists, though they might wonder at the pint-size skiers expertly bouncing along the mountain’s famously long traverses — that’s P.E. class.

The cars full of skiers have not begun to fill the parking lot as the 14 students start their day. With the sun just hitting Mount Baldy far above them, they begin with an observation walk alongside the rope tow that stretches from one end of the resort to the other, their teacher, Jaeann Tschiffely, slipping in small lessons about the science of weather.

Then, in through a side door at the Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge, they sharpen pencils for their daily timed math quiz, which gives Ms. Tschiffely time to take attendance.

Except that the windows are almost entirely buried under snow, the school looks like a typical classroom. But having to teach students at nine grade levels keeps Ms. Tschiffely in constant steady motion, even more than most teachers.

During math she moves between an eighth-grader working on quadratic equations and a kindergartner learning to regroup as she adds. During science, she stands over the desks of two sixth graders, using a hand-warmer and an aluminum can to demonstrated heat transfer. At a desk behind her, a fourth-grader is using a thesaurus, a knitting skein and a ruler to build a tape dispenser, a lesson on Rube Goldberg machines.

The students come together for art, watching a short video about an artist who used quilts to tell stories, then split up to make paper quilts of their own. Many tell of mountain adventures and mishaps: Collyns, in second grade, cuts shapes of soft pink and black to represent her leg and the brace she wore after she tore her A.C.L. (This leads to a bit of site-specific classroom one-upmanship: “My mom tore her A.C.L.,” one student calls over. Another replies: “My mom tore her A.C.L. twice — and her meniscus.”)

Ms. Tschiffely, whose father and grandmother both taught in one-room schoolhouses, led the school at Alta for nine years, then left for nine, teaching in schools abroad. She came back three years ago when the teacher who had taken her place left to raise her children. She had missed having the same students year after year, and the ability to individualize teaching.

“I always thought of this school as the place where I really learned how kids learn, how they progress,” she said. “We say they have to read at 5, do this when they’re 6 and do that when they’re 7. But all of my understanding of kids is that that doesn’t make sense. Development is a continuum.”

With a small, ungraded school, Ms. Tschiffely said, “We could put everyone where they were. They caught up when they caught up.”

Jenn Life, who came to Alta as a housekeeper and ended up as co-owner of the Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge, made room in the storage area for the school, and later had two children and sent them there. “There are always naysayers who say it’s too small, how will they adjust?” she said. “But they’ve all done well. They learned to work independently and be self-sufficient because the teacher was busy teaching different grades.”

Like the town, the school feels like a family. Parents help lead the P.E. classes up the mountain — the resort provides reduced-price lift tickets — and the students spend most weekends skiing together, too.

The number of students will drop by a few before the end of the school year as the ski season ends — Alta’s official last day is April 21 — and some parents head off to other seasonal jobs, as far away as Thailand. Marly Korpela, who runs reservations at the Alta Lodge, said her son, Tade, sometimes wishes there was more than just one other fourth-grader. But when he thinks about going to school in the valley, he thinks of what most people do when they think of Alta: the skiing.

“He says, ‘Then I’d have to pay for the full ticket!’”

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