Forging the future at CRMS |

Forging the future at CRMS

Bob Ward
Special to the Post Independent
Photo courtesy CRMS
Staff Photo |

Carbondale’s first private, independent school is modernizing its campus in a major effort to bring its aging buildings into step with its well-known academic and outdoor programs.

Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a private boarding school for grades 9-12, recently erected a new music building and two residence halls, and remodeled three other dorms. It’s now adding a state-of-the-art science center on a new level of its Jossman classroom building. When the new science classrooms are complete, work will begin on a conversion of the existing science building to a modern library/learning center.

And that’s not to mention the planned changes to the campus entrance off Garfield County Road 106, where a new welcome center, administrative offices and an alumni/student gathering place will emerge from a renovation of two existing buildings.


The $10 million capital campaign is the single largest fundraising effort in the college preparatory school’s 60-year existence. It’s designed to transform CRMS according to the school’s 1999 campus master plan and ensure that all campus buildings are designed specifically for the day-to-day purposes they serve.

“By the time this is done, every single part of our program will have been touched by this campaign and, by extension, our capacity to fulfill our mission and educate our students will be improved,” said Head of School Jeff Leahy. “I don’t think we’re suddenly going to be a better school. What this campaign will do is facilitate delivery of what already is a pretty powerful program.”

School officials stress the fact that they’re not planning to increase the size of the student body, now 160 students. Rather, they’re updating and reorganizing the campus to be more effective.

“We never wanted to be a bigger boarding school,” said Development Director Lisa Raleigh. “We just wanted to be a better boarding school.”

The changes to the school won’t seriously impact the town of Carbondale, but if Leahy and his board of trustees are charting the right path, then it should help ensure CRMS remains an influential part of the town landscape for years to come.

“Aside from the direct economic benefits, I think there’s a cultural benefit [to CRMS],” said Michael Hassig, a former Carbondale mayor and CRMS parent. “It’s a center of inquisitiveness and new ideas, and they have an exciting faculty. So, from a cultural perspective it’s a whole different element, kind of analogous to the things that make Aspen different.”

Sustainability vanguard

CRMS’s creation of a Solar Dorm in the 1970s and a one-acre, 147-kilowatt solar farm (in cooperation with the Aspen Skiing Co.) in 2008 helped make Carbondale a hotbed of sustainability. Hassig even suspects the bike aficionados in CRMS’s campus bike shop have brought extra creativity to Carbondale’s full-moon cruiser rides.

CRMS founders John and Anne Holden came to Carbondale from the East Coast in 1953, seeking to create a boarding school “for college-bound boys and girls who are sound of body and mind, and full of a spirit of adventure.” From the start, outdoor education and manual labor were part of the curriculum. When they’re not academically occupied, modern-day CRMS students still grow vegetables for use in the school kitchen, repair fences on the ranch and create coat racks or railings in the blacksmith’s forge as part of the school’s various work crews.

The emphasis on “meaningful work” comes from the Holdens’ original vision for the school. Officials still honor the Holdens in literature and brochures. Some of the buildings on the 300-plus-acre ranch, however, have not aged as well as the school’s founding philosophy. Over the years, buildings have been adapted for multiple purposes, and most of the original ranch structures now host activities completely unrelated to their original design.

One of the capital campaign’s chief aims is to design buildings specifically for their intended uses, and to ensure the buildings match the quality of the teaching that happens there. However, this upgrade must occur in a way that preserves the rustic feel of the CRMS campus and the “learning by doing” culture.

Hence the name of the campaign: “Forging the Future, Preserving the Past.”

“This school is always going to have a roughness about it that will remind us of all the work that has gone into it over the years,” Leahy said. “There are structures all over campus that people have contributed to.”

New space

Unlike the repurposed ranch buildings, the new CRMS classrooms and residence halls are professionally designed and built. Already complete is a free-standing, 1,000-square-foot music room where longtime instructor George Weber can teach, rehearse and even record with students. The building will be formally dedicated (and named after Weber) in June.

Two new dorms of 6,900 and 9,200 square feet each feature bamboo floors and paneling made from beetle-killed pine. Special care was taken in the new dorm buildings (which include three faculty residences as well) to make the interiors more home-like with larger living rooms and kitchens where students can socialize, cook and study.

Junior Tanner Oates is a big fan of the new dorms, which he says provide “a more comfortable environment to study and live in.” Oates says the new residences have even changed the way students spend their leisure time.

“Students enjoy spending more time on campus, thus improving weekend life at CRMS.”

Oates, who happens to be a budding scientist, also looks forward to the new science classrooms under construction. The $1.6 million science center will include four large classrooms with water, gas, safety equipment, storage and supplies. Thinking beyond mere classroom learning, Oates said the new facility will enable him “to work on more advanced research and continue previous projects such as solar energy cell research.”

All in all, CRMS will add roughly 26,000 square feet of new construction and remodel or repurpose another 27,000 feet in this current construction phase, which includes the conversion of the existing science building to a library. The 6,000-square-foot library/learning center, as it’s called, will combine the library, college counseling and student support services under one roof at the center of campus. The exterior will include large covered porches and the interior will have a variety of spaces, large and small, for individual study, group meetings, seminars, private phone calls and more.

Further down the road will be renovation and repurposing of the so-called New Boys Dorm near the school entrance into a welcome center and administrative offices, and conversion of the original Holden residence (now the main administrative center) into an alumni/student gathering place. This final phase also includes improvements to two remaining dorm buildings and creation of a central storage and staging facility for the school’s outdoor programs — a total of another 16,000 square feet of freshly designed space.

It’s a tall order to “forge the future and preserve the past” at the same time. But with $7.3 million already raised, CRMS is now roughly $2.7 million away from its $10 million goal. The board of trustees and the staff are determined, and momentum is on the school’s side.

“They’re optimistic about the future, and that’s a pretty good message,” said Hassig.

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