Leader of Teton Science Schools steps down

CEO Shawn Kelly says he’s leaving to deal with a family emergency, as the school grapples with staff retention.
Teton Science Schools CEO Shawn Kelly at the Mountain Academy in Jackson, which he also led until he stepped down recently due to a family emergency. (Ella Wallace/KHOL)

by | Jan 8, 2024 | Education

The leader of Teton Science Schools (TSS) is stepping down. 

CEO Shawn Kelly told staff and faculty last week that he’s leaving the educational nonprofit to manage a family emergency in Colorado, after visiting the neighboring state over winter break.

“What we learned on this trip is that a family situation was far more serious than we knew. Serious enough that it will require our direct attention for the foreseeable future,” Kelly wrote in a Jan. 2 email to employees.

Kelly is also stepping down as the head of the organization’s K-12 school, the Mountain Academy.

”The need to prioritize family is important and I am saddened that our family must make this move during the middle of the school year,” he wrote.

According to the email, Kelly was already in discussions with board members about leaving the organization at the end of the school year amid discussions about the future leadership of TSS.

In an interview with KHOL, board vice chair Leah Corrigan described the organization as an “institution of education in the valley.”

“I think the discussions the board has been having is how to continue that legacy and build on that amazing legacy that we have at Teton Science Schools,” Corrigan said.

This transition coincides with the science schools recently coming under fire for the alleged mishandling of Indigenous remains, that had been donated to the school as part of an educational collection.

It’s also just the latest resignation from an organization that has been plagued by retention issues in the last few years.

Retention issues?

Kelly joined the organization back in 2021, around the same time that TSS was making headlines for a wave of resignations that saw more than a third of staff leave their jobs.

That followed allegations of gender discrimination and communication problems at the organization, and the former CEO resigning. 

Coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, Kelly previously described this time as a “perfect storm.” 

In his tenure at the Mountain Academy, Corrigan said Kelly helped bring the school out of the pandemic, along with establishing pre-k programs and setting up school lunch offerings.

Corrigan said that staff levels remain the same going into 2024 as they did over the last year, but did not offer specific numbers for retention — or enrollment — over the past few years.

According to previous KHOL reporting, retention at the Mountain Academy remains an issue. For instance, last year, some students went without a science teacher when the biology instructor left for another job mid-semester.

Last year, some students at the Mountain Academy of Teton Science Schools were without a science teacher. A biology instructor left for another job, just a couple of months before finals this year. (Ella Wallace/KHOL)

Another board member, Fred Keller, said the organization struggles with the same issue as every employer in the region — housing — and that it’s looking to acquire more staff units.

“It’s one of those things that we would love to be better, and we’re going to keep working at that,” Keller said. “But we feel very, very confident and very comfortable with where we are with our current staff and teachers.”

Corrigan and Keller said they went to the Mountain Academy campuses — one in Jackson and the other in Teton Valley — to share the news of Kelly leaving.

“I think my perception is that people are generally happy, committed to their work,” Corrigan said. “Of course there will always be exceptions to that, but I think we both feel pretty good about it.”

No faculty or staff at the Mountain Academy responded to requests to comment about the transition.

Nate Musser, the head of the Jackson campus, sent out an email late last week urging staff to send all media inquiries to upper leadership.

What’s next

During the transition, Musser is slated to continue leading the Jackson school. Leila Poutiatine will continue to lead the Teton Valley campus, according to the Jan. 2 email.

And board members said they will soon launch an “extensive search” for the next leader of TSS and the Mountain Academy — but, for now, they’re taking it slow.

“We’re really going to take some time here to let the organization coalesce around this new situation,” Keller said. 

He continued, “We don’t feel a need, because of all the expertise that’s already there, to rush into this. And we want to make sure that we understand the right kind of leadership that we need going forward.

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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