For Dedicated Athletes, School Choice Provides Access To Elite Sports Academies

Feb 20, 2017

Among the dozens of independent schools in Vermont that accept public students through the state's school choice system, none are more specialized than the winter academies. The oldest of these institutions is Burke Mountain Academy.

A six-part series looking at the Vermont independent school system. Check back throughout the week for more from the 'Vermont's Choice' series.
Credit Photo: Howard Weiss-Tisman, Illustration: Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR

Burke is a boarding school nestled at the foot of its namesake, in the Northeast Kingdom.

As Head of School Jory Macomber explains, the idea for the school came from one young ski racer back in 1970.

"There was a training center here, and kids would come up on the weekends and train," Macomber says. "And one of the girls, Martha Coughlin, asked the head coach then, Warren Witherell, 'I want to ski every day. Will you start a school?'"

"And a lot of kids enrolled right away," says Macomber. "And that success spurred other ski clubs in Vermont to start their own academies."

Burke wasn't just the first ski academy in this state — it was the first in the United States.

Macomber says Vermont now has the highest concentration of ski academies in the world.

Lunch is a time for the entire school community, except for those students and faculty members traveling for races and training camps, to get together.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Today, the school attracts quite a few international students, but a roughly equal percentage of kids come from Burke's own backyard. Vermont's school choice law allows them to put public dollars towards Burke's tuition.

"Certain towns in the Northeast Kingdom do have school choice, and the kids who grow up in the Northeast Kingdom who choose to come to Burke ... they bring that town tuition to Burke," says Macomber. "So for our local families, it's a big help."

Macomber says a dozen of Burke's 65 students this year are local day students. And there are also local students who choose to board.

Burke Mountain Academy Head of School Jory Macomber stands in the spinning loft of the school's new training center.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Students in Vermont's school choice towns can attend any public school. When it comes to independent schools, towns pay up to the state average public school tuition. It's up to families and school scholarship programs to make up the difference.

This year, the state high school average tuition is $14,773.

The tuition for a day student at Burke is $40,780, roughly a $26,000 difference. The tuition for high school boarding students at Burke is over $53,000.

Macomber says that without that public tuition money, he imagines Burke would be handing out more scholarships for local kids to be able to attend.

When the school started in the 1970s, the Burke Mountain Academy campus was a farmhouse nestled at the foot of the mountain. Today, the school has several buildings, the newest of which is a state-of-the-art training center.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

But it's important to note that not everyone gets into Burke. The local high-schoolers — just like the out-of-state and international students — have to earn a spot. And as Macomber explains, the admissions process is different from mainstream selective independent schools.

"And, honestly, the first hurdle is how passionate and how good you are at ski racing," says Macomber. "Our motto is, 'Passion for skiing. Learning for life.' And so that skiing part is where we start."

Vermont's ski academies were once seen as boarding schools for rich kids with big ski racing dreams, and not necessarily lofty academic goals.

Twenty percent of Burke's students during the 2015-2016 school year were publicly tuitioned students, according to data from the Vermont Agency of Education.
Credit Photo: Amy Kolb Noyes; Illustration: Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR

But the proof was in the powder, as the academies started turning out champions. And today, Macomber says, Burke graduates are making it into some of the most selective colleges in the country.

"Almost all our kids go on to college," he says. "The exceptions are the ones who make the U.S. Ski Team. So, like, Mikaela Shiffrin, she's a full-time professional athlete, so she has not attended college. But almost everyone else in her graduating class is in college right now."

Shiffrin returned to Vermont in November to win her 21st World Cup slalom race, in Killington. She graduated from Burke in 2013 and took home Olympic gold the following year.

Credit Photo: Amy Kolb Noyes; Illustration: Emily Alfin Johnson

Go to the academy's cafeteria at lunchtime, and you'll meet dozens of "Burkies," as they call themselves, who aim to follow in her footsteps.

Tommy Kenosh is a junior from Rutland Town, which has school choice for high schoolers. He says attending the ski academy allows him to fit his education in around a tough training schedule.

Burke Mountain Academy has sent skiers to every Winter Olympic Games since 1976.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"The past two years I was at Rutland High School," Kenosh says. "And with the schedule and schooling for eight hours a day, it became pretty tough to keep up in the winter with school work and still perform at a high level. So, I wanted to take my skiing to the next level, and decided to come here."

Kenosh, like the other "Burkies," hopes some day his name will be added to the banners in the gym that list the 33 Olympians who have graduated from the school.

The Vermont State Board of Education is considering changes to the rules governing independent schools that would add more oversight for those schools that accept public money.

Because ski academies have selective admissions, that could mean Vermont students such as Kenosh will have to pay their tuition without the help of public dollars.

Vermont's Choice: Private Schools, Public Money is a six-part series looking at the Vermont independent school system. Check back throughout the week for more from the series.