September 20, 2012 in Washington Voices

Riverpoint Academy has technology at core

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photoBuy this photo

Sonia Khokhar, 16, right, and McKay Warter, 16, work together to research a gene related to cancer during class at Riverpoint Academy, a new Mead school specializing in innovative and creative learning.
(Full-size photo)

On the Web

For more information about Riverpoint Academy, visit riverpointacademy.org.

Mead’s newest high school is miles away from Mt. Spokane and Mead both in environment and educational styles.

Riverpoint Academy opened its doors this fall in the Innovate Washington building, on the banks of the Spokane River near downtown. The academy is a collaboration of the Mead School District and Riverpoint Campus colleges and universities. Its focus is producing critical thinkers by promoting STEM literacy (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and nurturing the creative passion within each student.

The school has been two years in the making.

“It’s been an incredible journey,” said Dan Butler, Mead deputy superintendent.

Nothing about the academy is conventional. On a recent morning, students in Sarah Pooler’s Bio MCT – medical, chemistry and technology – class perched on tall stools at industrial-looking metal tables, computers ready.

Pooler’s classroom has a concrete floor and open-beamed ceiling. Old industrial garment racks have been converted into whiteboards on wheels. They do double duty as room dividers and nest neatly when not in use.

Teens worked quietly in groups, but one thing was noticeably missing: textbooks.

“Students have options and choices in how they study. They can use online resources and we have access to WSU libraries and printed materials. What they are studying is current right now – not published five years ago,” Pooler said.

She paused to answer a question about an assignment. As the student returned to her table, Pooler continued, “Ultimately, we want them to be not just consumers of information, but producers of information.”

While the coursework sounds complex, Butler said the 75 students enrolled at the academy reflect a variety of academic abilities and economic backgrounds. “Thirty percent of our kids are on free- and reduced-price lunch – that’s standard in the district. All students are here of their own choosing and no kids were turned down.”

The enrollment is open only to juniors this year, but next year the school will have juniors and seniors. Students can use private or public transportation to get to the downtown campus, or they can catch a school bus at Mead or Mt. Spokane high schools.

More evidence that this isn’t a traditional high school was revealed when Butler opened the door to Reagan Drew’s Entrepreneurship and Design class. Instead of chairs, students sat on foam cubes. Though surprisingly comfortable, the blocks aren’t conducive to reclining. Butler laughed. “We’re not big on the idea of leaning back in chairs.”

Kris Cook, 17, explained the project he’d been working on: putting new products into old advertisements.

He showed off his work. “Me and my partner found an old Gibson guitar ad and put a new guitar in it.”

This real-world approach to business and leadership is integral to the academy’s mission of enabling students to think critically and use a variety of resources to gather information.

Butler said, “We think it’s important that kids understand if they invent something they need to know: Is it marketable, has it been done before?”

To facilitate that goal, Riverpoint Academy has partnered with Greater Spokane Incorporated to get a mentor for each student from employers in the community.

Another vital component of the school is encouraging students to produce work that matters in the community. Students work on a design challenge such as how to make downtown Spokane more welcoming to seniors. At the end of the year they’ll present their findings and ideas to the community. “We want our kids to be creative problem solvers,” Butler said.

As part of its partnership with the Riverpoint Campus, math classes will be taught by EWU faculty, and college-level language classes will be offered during the last quarter of the year.

Student Nate Endebrock said he’s enjoying this new kind of school. “This isn’t like anything I’ve ever heard or seen or read about.” He said he enrolled because, “I’m very big in math and science. I want to study engineering in college.”

Paige Fraasch had similar reasons for choosing Riverpoint Academy. “I want to be a pediatrician,” she said. “I was going to do Running Start, but this sounded more beneficial to the area I want to go into after high school.”

That’s just what district officials had hoped.

“Students are learning in ways that are relevant and meaningful to them,” Butler said. “We want kids to be innovative and creative – that’s what the world needs now.”


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