There’s no doubt that Vail Christian High School (VCHS) encourages kids to let their lights shine, whether through rigorous academics, theatrical performing arts, sports, strong spirituality or all of the above. Leading through love, guiding with compassion and encouraging the best in every student are just some of the principles that faculty, staff and students embrace every day.
Many schools talk quantitatively and VCHS boasts metrics that are impressive: a faculty that averages 18 years for tenure where more than 60 percent have advanced degrees (in same cases more than one), and a student body that routinely gets accepted into some of the best schools in the country. However, Steve O’Neil, head of school, believes that creating a successful student of each student.
“The faculty has an insatiable appetite for learning, they are always improving. Love is central to the Christian identity, it goes beyond the instructional content,” O’Neil says. “We have a balanced approach. The school academic portion is the most important portion but we believe in the development of the whole student. Arts and athletics and experiential learning and spiritual formation are super, super important, as well. We want to provide a lot of opportunity to our students–it’s not just about academics.”
The school encourages strong character formation through service learning and actions. It’s about friendly authority, not knuckle-rapping or harsh punishment. “We seek to help students explore their spirituality, to love each other well with empathy and respect,” O’Neil continues.
“It’s beautiful inside and out, it’s a place of learning, it’s a place of being loved and it’s just a gift of community it really is. It’s what our society desperately needs right now,” says Sheryl Engleby, a mother of three, two of whom are currently enrolled at VCHS.
The high school is celebrating 20 years this year–from humble beginnings with just 32 students in modular classrooms at the campus of Gracious Savior Lutheran Church–to a thriving community of 150 students.
“The school never was intended be a Lutheran school, it was always intended to be diverse and open to everyone regardless of religious affiliation or no religious affiliation,” O’Neil reminisces.
“From the beginning, it had a very inclusive bent with the school.” The interfaith communities came together and agreed to mutually support each other through partnership and collaboration. That spirit continues to exist on the campus just off Highway 6 in Edwards, which sits on the banks of the river surrounded by golden leaves on a particularly vibrant day in autumn, creating an immediately welcoming feel.
Donna Caynoski, a mother of two sons who graduated from VCHS, always felt that nurturing environment. “Every time I went there, whether to meet with a teacher or drop something off or go to a performance or a sporting event, I left feeling good and inspired and ready for my day,” she says. The inspiring school vibe is just the start because underneath that welcoming exterior are strong academics with high expectations with generous opportunities for students.
“If you set a high standard, students will reach and achieve it, with an excellent faculty who are supporting students and keeping the bar high,” says O’Neil. As a matter of fact, the school offers 17 Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Several of these classes are required for all students, creating that strong baseline. However, O’Neil is quick to add that the school is not only for the academically gifted among us. Supports are available for kids who need additional help through tutorials, the Learning Resource Center and one-on-one meetings.
“The teachers are happy to meet outside of classes,” shares one student. Caynoski, whose sons went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Rochester Institute of Technology saw the benefits of the academically rigorous school firsthand. “They were both prepared academically, yet it was a balanced and loving environment, as well.”
To further set students up for academic success in high school and afield in college, VCHS recently debuted Project Lead the Way (PLTW)–a program that is in 9,000 schools throughout the country. It’s complimentary to AP programs, but has a more experiential component with project-based learning and real-world applications. The three courses offered include engineering, computer science and human body systems. The classes are dual enrollment through the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs so that the students receive college credit and a certificate in addition to working towards their high school degrees.
PLTW is just another way the school encourages students to not only learn the skills but to really apply them–maybe through an internship at the Steadman Clinic or another equally challenging program. Students swarm to the newly established ‘Hive,’ a place where students create, collaborate and learn with state-of- the-art technology.
Using this hands-on approach is beyond helpful for future college students, as getting into college can sometimes feel arduous. The college counselors work closely with students, culling the long list of colleges to find what would work best for each student. Sure, the kids do the heavy lifting with the class load, but the counselors help seniors get into elite colleges and universities around the country. O’Neil adds that some parents want to know there is a ‘return on investment’ when they attend VCHS. Its students, on average, get $10,000 per year in merit based scholarships when entering college.
BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
As anyone with a teen, or who has been a teen, knows, high school is equal parts academic and social. VCHS doesn’t ignore the comradery aspect of grades nine through twelve. This year, O’Neil instituted a small group gathering: single sex, kids of the same grade and overseen by a teacher. It’s a time when kids get to know each other and can dish on topics that are of concern to them, whether it’s academics or way outside of the classroom–news, social media and pressures that many of us didn’t face growing up. These small groups are a chance for kids to process what’s happening in the world.
“The parents and teachers can spot things. It’s a small community so if somebody is having a tough time and things are tricky everybody helps out. They aren’t being busy bodies,” says Engleby. “I love that when the teacher is talking to me about my daughter, it includes telling me who she is as a person, rather than just about her grades.”
Parents and educators stress -and maybe stress about–that these teen years are the last chance to influence their kids in a positive manner; to not only teach them but to help guide them towards the adults they will become.
And the parents of VCHS have no doubt that their kids will do well. “I feel like I have a posse of little angels shepherding my kids in the years that are tricky,” Sheryl Engleby, says fervently.