Snow Birds for SnowSchool!

Pagosa Peak Open School combines snow and ornithology to bring new SnowSchool program to Southern Colorado.

Photo courtesy of Pagosa Peak Open School

From Kerry McClay, WWA SnowSchool Director (3/25/2024)

On a winter day in early March in Southwestern Colorado, educators Kelle and Keith Bruno are leading a group of SnowSchool students on snowshoe romp through the snow-filled forests outside Pagosa Springs. The day’s activities include some SnowSchool program classics such as digging snow pits and a race to calculate snow-water equivalent. Keith is a graduate of the University of Idaho’s McCall Outdoor Science School and a Community Naturalist with Audubon Rockies. Together the seasoned educators are leading this group of students from local Pagosa Peak Open School where Kelle currently serves at the K-4 Project-Based Learning Advisor.  As a new SnowSchool site in 2024, Pagosa Peak Open School is bringing this experience to Colorado kids in part by making use of winter education resources provided by Winter Wildlands Alliance SnowSchool.

This SnowSchool site also boasts a unique angle on winter education: combining birding with explorations of wild snowscapes. At first glance, this might seem an unlikely pairing. But Keith, a long time naturalist who has run a multitude of ecology programs at Hershey Foundation’s Four Mile Ranch in Pagosa Springs says, “It works!”  After coordinating the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and several other citizen science projects focused on birding data collection, Keith comments “Birds are a great reflection of local ecosystem health and can tell you a lot about what’s going in your local ecosystem in a changing climate. The students are able to see the all-important link between watershed health and bird population trends in their region.” Thus these SnowSchool students study birds’ winter adaptations, explore migration threats and track the presence of birds through SnowSchool activities like creating a sound map.

When Winter Wildlands Alliance’s Colorado Policy Coordinator, Brittany Leffel, joined a group of 4th graders for a day of SnowSchool, she was impressed by the student’s ability to blend snow science and creativity. The students were analyzing the metamorphosis of snowflakes within the snowpack, and enthusiastically described the snowflakes as “ice dragons” and “bubbly snow crystals.” Seeing their critical thinking skills in action while learning about snowpack in a changing forest left her hopeful.

As a public charter school, Pagosa Peak Open School embraces a project-based learning curriculum that emphasizes utilizing the students’ community itself as a localizing context for learning. This approach overlaps with SnowSchool’s place-based approach that, for example, utilizes the students own local San Juan River watershed to explore the connection between mountain snow and water. This natural overlap helped Pagosa Peak Open School engage over a 100 local students in their first winter as an official SnowSchool site. Looking ahead, the program aims to increase participation and enhance the overall experience by adding additional snow tools and snowshoes for the students. Stay tuned for future updates on this and all our growing SnowSchool sites across the country!