By Edith Morgan, Former Olympic Ski Racer, Ski Racing Magazine
Pete Smith first conceived of US Performance Academy in response to this question from a frustrated parent: Why does the traditional academic model make you choose between achieving your athletic dreams and getting a good education?
That was in 2013, when remote learning and quality education did not coexist in most people’s minds. Smith, an elite sailor turned educator, was intrigued by the possibilities technology offered in revolutionizing education. He envisioned a remote learning model that could leverage technology to increase both flexibility and support to meet the unique needs of highly competitive athletes; a platform to accommodate a wide variety of learning styles and schedules, as well as connection within the school community. Such a school would allow elite athletes to maximize their athletic and academic potential, while fostering self-awareness, independence and self-advocacy.
That vision turned into USPA, a fully accredited, NCAA compliant online school for students in grades 6-12 and post graduate. Today, the academy serves 165 high performance athletes in a wide range of sports, like golf, tennis, sailing, soccer, hockey, paddling and, increasingly, skiing.
Post pandemic, some level of remote learning is the new norm. USPA offers not only a comprehensive curriculum and support system, but also a track record of success. Athletes from a wide range of sports have gone on to compete at the Olympic, National Team and NCAA level while also getting into colleges that match their academic and competitive dreams.
SELF-PACED AND FULLY-SUPPORTED
Allison Mollin first heard about USPA from an article in Ski Racing. She was heading into high school and wanted a school that allowed her to stay with her home ski program at Palisades Tahoe. Specifically, she wanted an option that would allow her to access prime morning training. USPA was an ideal solution. It allowed her to train and compete at the highest level, and also to complete courses at her own pace. That meant taking a couple summer courses to lighten her academic load in winter.
Even during the fall of her senior year—while taking three AP classes (USPA offers 10) at the same time as Chemistry and Precalculus, and attending early season ski camps—she had ample support and flexibility. “Every now and then you hit units that you just don’t quite understand,” says Allison. “Whenever that happened, it was a simple Pronto message to a teacher, and we set up a time to talk about it. Usually we talked about it within the hour of encountering the issue.” Compared to her peers, Allison found she devoted more energy to skiing, and less to being stressed about school deadlines. “They were far more worried, and I think it took more of a toll.”
Mollin—who foreran the Lake Louise World Cup last year, and ultimately has her sights set on competing at that level—graduated last spring. She is taking a gap year, concentrating on her ski racing on the NorAm speed circuit.
CONNECTION IS KEY
For remote learning to work, it also has to offer ample support because flexibility, while liberating, can also become overwhelming. Smith explains: “If you don’t have multiple touchpoints that are supporting students in different ways, the wheels can come off.”
USPA’s remote learning model is a far cry from the correspondence courses of yore, with mail-in assignments and minimal feedback; or the folder of worksheets that typically end up in a sorry heap on the car floor; or even the “upside-down” learning model with instructional videos and a virtual class meeting. USPA’s 70 core and elective courses are a combination of direct instruction, videos, interactive learning tools, discussion-based assessments and collaborative learning opportunities. Strategically embedded checks ensure that students are understanding material along the way. Director of School Julie Glusker calls it, “a learning system that empowers students with real-time, actionable content and data, enabling easy monitoring of progress and achievement.”
Another challenge for every school, and particularly sports academies with limited staff, is supporting students who are “neurodivergent.” Says Smith, “Everybody learns differently whether you’re labeled neurodivergent or neurotypical.” Rather than label kids, USPA helps them develop skills and tools that allow them to work best with their learning style.
Carrie McGillicuddy is USPA’s Director of Student Development and Counseling. McGillicuddy designed a program called Guided Opportunities for Achievement and Learning (GOAL) aimed at helping an increasing population of neurodivergent students. Her “neurodiversity-affirming” approach includes the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, whereby putting accommodations in place for people who need them benefits everyone. “My approach with GOAL,” says McGillicuddy, “is let’s take what works for our neurodivergent students and offer those same options to all of our students.” GOAL offers four levels of individualized support in everything from emotional regulation skills to executive functioning, to specific content areas with learning specialists, to life skills.
“Every diagnosis has assets and liabilities,” says McGillicuddy. She explains that some things schools try to remediate—ADHD, for example—may be the very things that make an individual excel athletically. The success of GOAL led to BOOST, a student development program available to any student—enrolled in USPA or elsewhere—who is seeking additional learning support.
The concept of proactively meeting the needs of all learners permeates the USPA community, including teachers, learning coaches and parents. USPA students interact with teachers as needed, as well as learning coaches who meet with each student weekly. They can also participate in optional study sessions with peers. Parents have access to their students’ progress as well as teachers and learning coaches. “This is such a collaborative effort,” says McGillicuddy. The result is more kids learning in a way and at a pace that works for them, and fewer kids slipping through the cracks.
EDUCATION FOR LIFE
The very flexibility that facilitates impressive athletic accomplishments also naturally brings along invaluable experiential learning. Smith explains, “What most college admissions directors are really interested in is the idea that we’re building the skills that kids typically have to learn and build in their freshman year.”