Alzar students hiking in the Cascade Mountains. Photo by Nick Kunath.

When envisioning the traditional American education system, one might picture sitting in a fluorescent room for seven hours listening to a teacher. What if school was thought of as more? Instead of being inside all day, what if school was moved outside into the rural wilderness where instead of being taught math or English all the time, students were also taught kayaking, hiking, and leadership. The thought of an alternative education experience such as this was exactly how the Alzar School was created.

The Alzar School resides next to the Payette river in Cascade, Idaho. The school was originally founded by couple Kristen and Sean Bierle as a kayaking course, but has since flourished into a full semester program with up to 42 students per session. Each semester at the Alzar School, a student will take literature, math, science, and language classes for some of the day to make up for what is being missed at home in traditional schooling. The rest of the time is spent kayaking, hiking, skiing, learning outdoor survival skills, and traveling to Chile for two weeks on a cultural exchange program where students will participate in service to the local community. Students will also learn about environmental sustainability and how to preserve and respect the earth. All classes are honors or AP to keep students on track for all the credits they need to graduate while having time to participate in the rigorous daily life at the Alzar. On campus, students take classes in outdoor classrooms next to the Idaho mountain scenery. Just like at home, chores need to be completed to keep the environment clean.

When the students travel to Chile for a two week period, they experience the country to its fullest; exploring rivers and backpacking in the Andes Mountains are the main events, coupled with practicing Spanish skills in the local villages. Students split their time camping on wilderness expeditions and living in cabanas in small villages. Alum student Lola Degarmo was surprised at the alternative campus at first, saying “It was different from any school campus I had ever seen.” Degarmo was able to adapt quickly to her environment, and noted the major differences between her typical high school experience and the Alzar. “All the teachers eat with us at meals and are the expedition leaders for the trips, so they become less like a teacher and more like family,” said Degarmo. Differences also included the living situation.

Like a mix of a college dorm room and summer camp cabins, students sleep in yurts on campus with six others of the same gender. The yurts include bunk beds, a desk area, bathrooms, and a heating system to keep the students comfortable. “It was hard getting used to living in a yurt with six other girls, but after awhile it [became] normal,” said Degarmo. Alzar in Spanish means “to lift.” That is what the program is all about for students. “We believe that high school students are capable [of] achieving so much,” said Admissions Director Nick Kunath. “The Alzar School was created so that highly motivated students could find a place where they would be challenged in the classroom, learn about themselves as leaders, gain a broader global perspective, and ultimately take what they have learned from their semester back home with them to make real change in their hometowns and beyond,” said Kunath. As the fall session comes to a close, Alzar will soon welcome its spring students to attend.

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