Alzar School in Cascade inserts outdoor excursions into curriculum

Alzar School introduction

This is the introductory video that the Alzar School posts on its website for student recruitment. The school in Cascade incorporates outdoor excursions into its curriculum.
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This is the introductory video that the Alzar School posts on its website for student recruitment. The school in Cascade incorporates outdoor excursions into its curriculum.

A group of Alzar School students on a recent backpacking trip faced a routing decision. They made the wrong call.

“It was a 9-mile mistake,” Alzar co-founder Sean Bierle said.

The teacher with the group followed the students, knowing he eventually would have to double back. Teachers are trained to intervene only when safety is an issue.

Students later recounted the story with pride, Bierle said, because they were able to overcome the error.

“The outdoors just make this incredible opportunity for failure that kids don’t get (elsewhere),” Bierle said.

The outdoors is such a powerful classroom that you can’t really simulate.

Sean Bierle, Alzar School co-founder

Alzar is a semester school located on 100-plus acres along the North Fork of the Payette River in Cascade. High school sophomores and juniors from across the country and Chile take challenging classes while learning leadership through whitewater kayaking and backpacking expeditions. Each semester includes a six-week trip to Chile, where students continue their studies, kayak, backpack and utilize the Spanish they learned on campus.

Bierle and his wife, Kristin, developed the idea for the school while working summers at Cascade Raft and Kayak. Neither had lived in Idaho before that.

“We both had really traditional academic experiences — big, public high schools — and had always loved learning and academics but found those traditional classrooms to be lacking,” said Bierle, 34, whose resume includes three years split between Boise High and Anser Charter School as a teacher. “One of our mottos is, ‘When we need a classroom, the world awaits.’ ”

Alzar was founded in 2004 and began whitewater-based leadership classes in 2007 as the Bierles built toward their semester school vision. Full semesters began in fall 2012 with 11 students; enrollment will grow to 28 next spring and is projected to max out at 42 within two years.

This semester’s group of 25 students departs for Chile this week after two months in Idaho. They have taken three excursions of at least five days for backpacking and kayaking here and earned certifications in wilderness first aid and swift-water rescue. Their schedule includes honors and advanced-placement classes that replace what they’re missing at home, plus Spanish and leadership for everyone. Students are assigned leadership roles for various situations and excursions and perform chores around campus.

The students live in yurts — typically six to a yurt — and gather with the staff every Monday for a community meeting where the school’s pluses and deltas (areas for growth) are identified. At one such meeting in late August, the hot topic was how students could improve their time management and teachers could tweak the homework demands to help. Teachers live on campus, too.

Students begin their days before 7 a.m. and often are doing homework past 10 p.m.

“It’s a lot more fast-paced, and that’s something you really have to get used to,” said Cameron Solon, a Boise High junior who is attending Alzar this semester. “We have half the days of learning that the average semester does, so we have to go at twice the rate. But the days that we’re not learning, we’re on expedition — kayaking and hiking and having fun. So it’s worth it.”

Alzar’s name comes from the Spanish word that means “to raise, lift or elevate.”

Students come to Alzar in search of a different type of academic experience. Some have a background in kayaking or backpacking, but many don’t. The cost of $26,000 for a semester causes less “sticker shock” to folks in the East who send their kids to private high schools, Bierle said. But the school also offers scholarships to try to broaden the applicant pool. About 5-10 percent of students come from Idaho.

At least one Valley County student per year receives a scholarship through an agreement with Kelly’s Whitewater Park in Cascade. The student works 50 hours at the park before enrollment and another 50 hours after as part of the deal. Alzar tries to offer an additional Valley County scholarship per year so the local community is represented each semester.

“I’ve known about Alzar ever since it started,” said Quinton Dilenge of Cascade, a junior who is this semester’s Kelly’s Whitewater Park scholarship recipient. “Some of my friends were in the first semester. They said they loved it and it was such a great experience. ... It was just a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I wanted to do.”

A second designated scholarship goes to a Chilean girl and is named for Bierle’s “fiercely adventurous” aunt, Jean Bierle. Girls and women aren’t presented as many outdoors opportunities in Chile as they are in the U.S., Bierle said.

Amparo Muñoz is the Chilean girl in this class. Andrés Balbontín of Chile also enrolled this fall. Both knew students who attended Alzar previously, including Balbontín’s sister and best friend.

“I wanted to learn to kayak and improve in backpacking,” Muñoz said. “Just have a good time, meet different people in a different country, improve my English and improve in outdoor things.”

Does she miss her family?

“I Skype them a lot,” she said. “I’m in touch with them. But there’s not really time to miss them because we’re all so busy.”

Lauren Cox, a junior from Charleston, S.C., had spent her entire academic career at the same all-girls, private school. She searched for a semester school — the Semester Schools Network, which makes schools wait three years for inclusion, lists 13 of them nationwide — for new experiences and to build self-confidence.

She sacrificed a season of competitive swimming.

“The expeditions (at Alzar) were a big part of my choice,” she said, “taking education outdoors, but also being able to do the physical activity I like. ... It was definitely a big challenge making that decision to leave, but I think I made the right one.”

Science and leadership teacher Ned Buckingham doubles as the outdoors program coordinator at Alzar. He spends his summers teaching leadership to teenagers and young adults through the Northwest Outward Bound School.

The outdoors, he said, puts students in challenging situations that are “real ... not contrived.” The kayaking expeditions include rapids up to Class IV.

“I don’t think we’re here to make kayakers,” Buckingham said. “I don’t think we’re here to make fluent Spanish speakers, necessarily. Although, if those things come out of the program, there are obvious benefits. But we’re here to help students understand themselves better and challenge them as leaders.”