PINECREST, Calif. — It was early morning, and the weekly Friday winter ritual at the three-room school in this High Sierra hamlet was about to begin.
The whole school was going skiing for the day--except for 10 students who would stay in class because of poor grades, unexcused absences or disciplinary problems.
"Skiing is a privilege. Our kids have to earn it. It's an incentive program," explained Pam Kubasek, 35, who teaches kindergarten, first and second grades.
At 7:45 a.m., 57 kindergarten through eighth-graders piled into the yellow Pinecrest Elementary School bus for the 15-minute ride to the slopes of nearby Dodge Ridge.
For the past 35 years practically every boy and girl from the fourth grade on in the dozen elementary schools in Tuolumne County, population 34,000, have learned to ski as part of the county school system's physical education program.
At all the schools except Pinecrest, classes alternate, with students spending one day every other week on the slopes.
At Pinecrest, however--the school nearest Dodge Ridge--the kids really luck out. Everybody gets to ski a full school day each week if they've been good. They also start out much younger--in kindergarten instead of fourth grade.
In the October, 1985, issue of Ski magazine, the Tuolumne County's ski program at Dodge Ridge was cited as "one of the best in the country for small fry."
Claim to Fame
"Because of the program, I suspect Tuolumne County may well turn out more good skiers per capita than any other county in the country," said Ron Baker, 46, bearded sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at mile-high Pinecrest school.
Baker, who taught at Milpitas for 20 years before coming to Pinecrest two years ago, added, "I never had Fridays like this when I was teaching in the Bay Area.
"These kids learn to ski fast. They're not afraid of anything. After four or five times on the slopes, even the little 5-year-old kindergartners are riding the chair lifts and hot-dogging it all over the mountain."
Teachers Kubasek and Baker skied all day with their students--as did a few parents, including Laurie Lupo, 30, who sailed down the slopes with her daughter Heidi, 5. Lupo learned to ski in the program when she was in fourth grade.
'Back in Gloomsville'
The Pinecrest teachers take turns every Friday, with one teacher staying behind at the school with the ineligible students. This time it was third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Ginger Garrison's turn "to be stuck back at gloomsville," as Baker described the mood of the students left back at the school.
"Some of our kids have made complete 180-degree turnarounds," Baker noted, pointing out Phil Rosenbaum, 13, Steve Jeffers, 14, and Nick Zeffaro, 13, who had missed several ski sessions last year because they hadn't maintained a C average. The trio raised their grades and are skiing every Friday this year.
"It's no fun staying back at school, that's for sure. It's because of skiing my grades have shot way up," Zeffaro said. Jeffers and Rosenbaum said they too are much better scholars because of skiing.
After suiting up, the 57 Pinecrest students fell in line for a ride up a rope tow and a run down a short hill. Then they broke into groups by age and ability for their weekly hourlong ski lesson. After that they were on their own.
Clementine for Emily
"This beats being in school all day. I love it," grinned pigtailed Emily O'Neil, 7, a second-grader, as she pushed her skis outward, snowplowed and came to a stop after zipping 1,700 feet down a run called Clementine.
The Pinecrest kids were all over the 26 runs on 8,200-foot-high Dodge Ridge, reached by seven chairlifts and three rope tows.
"Can you imagine growing up in Tuolumne County?" said Sue Rolfe, 34, a member of the Dodge Ridge ski patrol. "Many of these kids learned to ski soon after they took their first steps--skiing is second nature with most of them. And they are extremely safety conscious. It's been drilled into them ever since they started."
U.S. Forest Service timber management expert Dick Williamson, 47, and his wife Candice, 40, a teacher-administrator at Columbia Junior College, told how their two sons, Johnny, 9, and Matt, 12, who go to Twain-Harte school, have been skiing since they were 3.
"It made them a lot more responsible, helped give them confidence," Williamson said.
And, Candice added, "It allowed us to do something together as a family all these years. We ski together every chance we get."