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Natalie Higgins,
Carol Wiseman teaches NayVee Williams in a second grade class at Milford Elementary School in Milford, Sept. 9, 2011

MIDWAY — Without a cafeteria or gymnasium, lunch and P.E. at Solider Hollow Charter are held outside — the same place science and sometimes math lessons take place.

The omitted buildings aren't the result of a too-small campus, but rather an intentional part of a curriculum that treats nature as a classroom.

Soldier Hollow Charter in Midway and Milford Elementary in Milford have earned the national distinction of being 2011 Blue Ribbon Schools — an honor given to public and private schools across the country that excel year after year.

Utah's recipients are among 305 schools nationwide given the distinction by the U.S. Department of Education this year.

"We go outside as much as we possibly can," said Soldier Hollow Principal Charles Weber. "Our charter was established for the environment and the arts."

Started in 1999, Solider Hollow was one of the early public charter schools established in the state, offering the same core subjects as traditional public schools, but with a focus on the environment. There are no more than 20 student per class.

Administrators and teachers say the setting especially helps hand-on learners.

Upper-grades science teacher Clark Gallo said he's seen multiple students grow by leaps and bounds soon after enrolling. One of his science students was a dyslexic boy who assumed he was terrible at science because he had never been able to understand the text books he'd been given. After hiking to sandstone boulder pits during geology lessons and conducting experiments outdoors, that boy went on to take first place in his division at the state science fair.

"The freedom to teach on a hands-on basis, I think, is the key to our students' success," he said. "Science isn't necessarily something that's learned from a book, it's something that's done."

Instead of playing basketball beneath fluorescent lights, children at Solider Hollow cross country ski in the wintertime and eat meals on decks outside their classrooms.

Nestled in the hills behind Mt. Timpanogos, the kindergarten-through-eighth grade school is in a pristine setting for hiking and skiing. The main school building was formerly the official time keeping and media building for the 2002 Winter Olympics events at Soldier Hollow.

Weber said the school performs well on standardized testing, and has met federal annual benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind Act since the law went into effect in 2002-03. He believes that's likely because of the way teachers and administrators approach exams.

"We celebrate tests," he said. "We eliminate that fear."

Parents of children at the school bring in breakfast and snacks to help the children focus, he said.

Gallo said teachers at the school are committed to their jobs regardless of whether they get recognition or not, but it is nice to be congratulated for a job well done.

"Often you feel that your success — you only see that in the faces of your students. And it's not recognized otherwise," Gallo said. "And to see someone from the outside come in and recognize us is amazing." 

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com mollyfarmer