Aspen Country Day School reaches 50th year teaching students from Castle Creek campus
Had Tim Willoughby not grown up skiing in the Roaring Fork Valley, he may never have latched on with Aspen Country Day School. A newly licensed teacher, he didn’t exactly have much of a resume yet.
But, he could rip, and that actually meant a lot to the avant-garde institution.
“The best feature for me and for a lot of people in Country Day was the ski program, which was the other reason I got hired, because they needed a skier,” Willoughby said last week. “Because we didn’t have a gym or really any indoor space where you could even bounce a ball; P.E. in the winter was skiing. So two afternoons a week we skied at Aspen Highlands. I got in a lot of ski days, and so did the students.”
Willoughby, who now lives in California and continues to write a column for The Aspen Times, was there for the school’s early days. Aspen Country Day School opened its doors Sept. 8, 1970, making this year its 50th anniversary. Willoughby started working for the school midway through its second year of existence, the start of a 13-year run that saw him become assistant headmaster before he left.
When Country Day opened its doors that first year, it had 53 students from K-12. This fall, a half-century later, it has an official enrollment of 284 students from K-8.
“So much credit to those before me and others on campus,” said Josh Wolman, Country Day’s current head of school. “It started as a very small, family-run school and it’s become just a thriving, independent school. We feel we are in a good place right now.”
Aspen Country Day School, which is located off Castle Creek Road and shares a campus with the Aspen Music School, was founded by Carter Hall and his wife, Jamie, in 1969. Hall, who came to Aspen from New Orleans, died in 2011 at age 90. He also was Country Day’s first headmaster.
Hall’s original plan, according to Willoughby, had been to create several boarding schools near ski resorts. But after talking to the Aspen community, he found out the locals were more interested in a new elementary and middle school, so Aspen Country Day School opened its doors for everyone from kindergarten through high school. Today, the school only goes through eighth grade.
Among the school’s founding board members was Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins.
In the Sept. 8, 1970 dedication, Hall said the school was there “to provide a stable and understanding academic atmosphere,” according to a Sept. 10, 1970 article in The Aspen Times. “We are interested,” Hall continued, “in the development of a total person who will be able to fit productively and happily into any society.”
Willoughby said the school grew rapidly in its early days, beginning with those first 53 students. By the time Willoughby left Aspen Country Day School 13 years after his start, he said they had about 150 students.
While turnover among teachers was high at the time, the school also had many “wonderful characters,” according to Willoughby, such as longtime music teacher Al Moore, who presumably never owned a car and spent his summers hiking the Appalachian Trail.
“It’s wonderful to think it survived all those years and grew and got better and better,” Willoughby said. “You are starting fresh. You can create the atmosphere and the tenor and the traditions and all those things. You get to be a part of starting all of that, and that’s exciting.”
Today’s group of teachers includes many who have multiple decades at the school, including drama teacher Marci Sketch, who is in her 26th year at Country Day. Sketch, who was from Michigan, followed her then-boyfriend to Aspen for what was only to be a short visit before landing a job at the school and remains there to this day.
Her son, Tristan Niskanen, went to school at Country Day before graduating from Aspen High School in 2016. After graduating from Colgate this past spring, he landed his first full-time teaching job this fall at Country Day, where he teaches Spanish.
“You are going to leave there being pretty well-rounded. I sound like an ad, but it is an amazing, magical place. It really is,” Sketch said of what makes the school special. “There is going to be something to hook you in, no matter what kind of child you are. If you are into academics, the school definitely offers challenging academics. If you are into the outdoors, we have an abundance of outdoor opportunities. Even now in the pandemic, the kids have been out and about hiking, biking, climbing. And the arts are unparalleled, as well, because we work with amazing professionals.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been big plans to celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary. As it stands, those celebrations are on hold until the situation improves and local health guidelines are relaxed.
Still, the current staff is finding joy enough in simply having the students back in the classroom. Prior to their first day Aug. 31, students hadn’t had in-person learning on campus since March 12. They’ve made it work this fall by keeping the age groups mostly separate and having the students remain in one classroom while having the teachers move between cohorts.
“We all hope for that,” Wolman said of being able to celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary sometime this year. “The two main goals of the year are the health and safety of our faculty and students, and in-person learning. We are in a good position right now and watching kids come back to school after being out for six months, ready to be on campus, was such a joy for all of us who work here.”
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High school students in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs will be back to school for in-person learning full time starting Nov. 4.