Jake Kennedy regularly finds himself explaining just what the River City Leadership Academy is to those who have never heard of the state’s first fully accredited, project-based high school. And there are many – including people within the West Valley School District.
“I think when people hear the term ‘alternative high school’ they immediately think ‘ohhh, dropouts’,” he explains. “That’s not the case at all. I know we’re not the most on-the-map school, but I do think we do hold an important place. The traditional education system just doesn’t work for everyone and not everyone is able to learn in that system. It’s just not a fit for everybody.”
RLA is geared toward a one-on-one, interdisciplinary approach to education.
“We work in a small-group setting,” Kennedy’s adviser, Ned Fadeley explained. “Most importantly, I think, it’s about teaching independence. The kids help design their own education through a series of self-selected projects.”
In many ways, it’s helped Kennedy find his own voice.
“I struggled and had some rough experiences at a middle school in Montana before I came here,” Kennedy said. “I came here in the eighth grade and I liked the intellectual energy and the one-on-one discipline here.
“We have a tight-knit community here and there are only about 40 students in the whole school. And we have people from all different walks of life – liberals and conservatives both. We have debates and we talk through issues and I think you really learn to see people for who they are and you learn to accept people for who they are.”
One relationship in particular impressed Kennedy.
“We had a student here who came from a devoutly Muslim family,” he said. “It was eye-opening to talk to them about their religion and see that it’s not how it’s portrayed in the media. I wish more people could have that experience before making up their minds.”
By law, students take more traditional classes in math and science, Kennedy said. But other subjects are taught through self-identified projects.
“I would sit down with Ned – we call all of our teachers by their first names – and we would work out a project and then I’d go back and work up a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation on it,” he said. “A lot of the time, Ned would play devil’s advocate while we were mapping out the project and we talk through different aspects of what I wanted to do.”
In that way, Kennedy explained, he’s explored his personal penchant for intellectual history, in particular Asian history, and the social sciences. And he’s had four years of Japanese.
“Japanese has been very interesting,” he said. “At first, I was interested in studying the language because there was a chance that I might get to go to Japan as part of a project. Ned taught English to Japanese students in Japan for a few years and he took a few students there. That inspired me to learn more about the language and the culture.”
Kennedy not only developed a voice in planning his education, he’s developed a gifted literary voice.
“Jake is an exceptional writer,” Fadeley said. “With both fiction and nonfiction. He gave a reading at First Night that was marvelous and it got people’s attention. And his fiction is very good, too. He writes dialogue so effortlessly that I am sometimes envious of him.”
“At first, I wasn’t all that big of a fan of writing,” Kennedy said. “But after the first year or so I really came to enjoy it. I’ve learned to appreciate it as a gift – especially as I’ve learned and expanded my vocabulary.
“When I’m writing fiction, I can hear the conversation my characters are having in my head. I can hear what they would say to each other in whatever situation I have them in and then write it down. I was surprised to learn that not everybody can do that.”
The RLA curriculum helped refine that ability, he said.
“For example, when we were studying the Vietnam War, we created podcasts where we would try to explain the thoughts of fictional soldier in the war,” he explained. “I’m such a history buff that I really enjoyed the project to begin with, but it was enlightening to try to get inside the head of a fictional character like that.”
The gift of writing helps in some surprising areas, he said.
“Writing actually helped me with my SATs,” he laughed. “I had such an easy time with the essay questions – knocking out a few paragraphs on a subject is so easy for me – that I had an extra 15 or 20 minutes to work on the rest of the test. It comes in handy.”
A fan of essayist and pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman as well as the collected works of Cormac McCarthy, Kennedy plans to continue studying writing, although which form that study will take remains uncertain.
“I know I will go to Eastern Washington University in the fall,” he said. “For the first couple of years, I know I’ll be taking general classes, but I haven’t really decided yet if I want to study social sciences or go into journalism.”