By Mira Brody and Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – On Feb. 16, a snowy Tuesday morning, graduates of Big Sky Discovery Academy skied down the mountain they had been learning in the shadow of for most of their lives. Visible only as vibrant, red streaks in their graduation gowns, they snaked their way down Ambush run, through the steadily growing line at Ramcharger 8, and into the patio area at the Summit Hotel where they were welcomed by an intimate group of family, and the teachers who had shaped their education.
“I just want to say as part of my welcome, that these five young amazing people have a real story to tell,” said Nettie Breuner, Discovery Academy’s Head of School. “And that story is … that you helped to start a high school. And that’s an incredible kind of thing.”
Breuner commended her students for “taking a different path” than most, and trying something different with the Discovery Academy, and encouraged them to carry that uniqueness and tenacity through the rest of their lives. As snow fell steadily on their graduation caps, all five students listened to as their teachers, Breuner, Grace Ganoom-Grein and Barbara Rowley, spoke of each student and their goals for the future.
Nehalem Manka is a competitive free ride skier and will continue to compete with support from her sponsors. She has applied to a variety of universities and plans on attending college out west.
Ben Quackenbush worked at Big Sky Resort during his high school years and was also a member of the kayaking team. He will attend Northern Arizona University and join their honors program in the fall.
Mazie Schreiner, once a competitive ski racer, had to pivot following an injury, and will instead focus on a 90-hour internship with Lone Peak Physical Therapy. She took her exam to obtain a real estate license and she will either attend University of Utah or Montana State University to achieve her degree in exercise science and kinesiology.
Caleb Unger is determined to compete in every ski race he is eligible for. Post-graduation, he plans to participate in a ski program in either Vermont, Idaho or Wyoming.
Bo Wikan has been building a house with his dad, and was able to adjust his school schedule to both finish that project and graduate early. Breuner commented on his unique skill as a builder and ability to balance his craftsmanship against academia.
These five trailblazers are not only the first set of seniors to graduate from Big Sky Discovery Academy, but also have played an instrumental role in shaping the school’s curriculum.
Big Sky Discovery Academy was originally founded in 2014 as an alternate option for students in the Big Sky community. Four students—including Unger and Schreiner—came up with that idea that the academy should become a full-time high school, and in fall of 2018, that idea became a reality.
“We refer to them as the trailblazers because they were the kids that made us start a high school, so that was really awesome,” said Ganoom-Grein, the director of the High School Program. “They did it because they wanted a different experience or different schedules, a lot of them were athletes, and a lot of our students now are athletes, so they paved the way for how we do things—we learned a lot from them.”
Ganoom-Grein originally joined Discovery as a math teacher and her role has grown along with the school. She still teaches math as well as organizing all of the scheduling and class determinations.
Discovery Academy uses the University of Nebraska’s online high school diploma program as the basis for the curriculum. In addition, Ganoom-Grein explained that they have developed their own electives at Discovery, which then transfer over to University of Nebraska. The entire curriculum is available online which is what allows the students the flexibility to shape their schedules around their chosen extracurriculars.
Schreiner was able to craft her schedule around ski racing initially, and then her physical therapy internship. By completing classes in the summer, she says, she and her peers were able to design their schedules with a lighter load during the winter.
As one of the founding students at Discovery, Schreiner has navigated several different schedule configurations, starting with a hybrid between Lone Peak High School and Discovery, and ending with a class schedule of her own design.
“We decided that we were going to take the leap of faith and just hope that it all worked out, because we had already used the online curriculum for our math class our freshman year,” Schreiner said. “We figured we could just continue with that and pick up all the other classes that they offered.”
Now that the trailblazers have graduated, Schreiner said she is using the extra semester to, “get all the tools in my toolbox.” She took the test to get her real estate license, she has received her Professional Ski Instructors of America Alpine Level 1 certification and is currently ski instructing at Big Sky Resort.
“Discovery is an amazing, different way of learning in the community, and I think it will benefit a lot of kids coming up,” Schreiner said. “The learning style definitely has set me up way more for my future than a normal public high school because I’ve been held accountable for every one of my moves. … Being able to have the ability to take control of my own education and know that I’m the one that’s either going to make myself succeed or fail was amazing.”
Since 2018, Discovery has grown and the curriculum has evolved with the help of the first five trailblazers.
Emotions ran high at the Feb. 16 graduation as the first five students to shape Discovery head off to new adventures.
“It’s a really emotional experience for me,” said Ganoom-Grein. “I feel like watching them grow up, I grew up a lot as well. These kids gave me as much of a chance as Discovery gave me being pretty new to teaching, having the opportunity to run a high school and do it in a way that has led these kids to their graduation has been a really rewarding experience. It’s pretty incredible.”