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Students heading to El Salvador to enrich other kids’ lives

Mon., April 15, 2013

Emily Christianson spends her afternoons and weekends aerating lawns to raise money. The high school freshman doesn’t want fancy clothes or fast food; she’s raising money for a trip to El Salvador to teach young children at a summer day camp.

Christianson learned about the opportunity through her principal, Cindy McMahon, at The Community School, a project-based high school within Spokane Public Schools. McMahon is a member of the nonprofit Hermanas Spokane, a group of Spokane women who have established a relationship with the small village of Huisisilapa in El Salvador.

Christianson is also helping plan a fundraiser for a new library in the village.

The current library is composed of three large bookcases, McMahon said.

Christianson said, “All of us here who are passionate about books and reading think it’s a good idea to raise money for their library.”

Day camp will involve teaching Salvadoran children games like tag and hide-and-seek, she said. “It’s surprising what childhood games we take for granted,” she said.

Students who wanted to make the trip had to compete for the opportunity by writing an essay and answering several questions. They also had to agree to raise $1,500 for the trip. Christianson will be joined by seven other students from Spokane and one from Bainbridge Island, Wash.

Because Christianson attends a project-based school, she’s tied the trip to Huisisilapa into an independent project that also includes learning Spanish, practicing leadership skills and studying El Salvador’s history.

The Community School has nearly 150 students and is one of about 60 Big Picture Learning high schools nationwide. The schools focus on three principles: the interests and goals of each student, curriculum relevant to people and places in the real world, and measuring students’ abilities by the quality of their work.

Students work on projects independently and collaboratively.

“This is a brilliant school,” Christianson said. “It gives us a reason to want to learn because it’s based around you. They give you everything you need to really challenge yourself, but they don’t force you.”

While Akstudents work on projects, they also set aside time each day to work on academics that aren’t the focus of their project, such as writing, math or science, and they do it at their own learning pace with the help of an adviser.

Big Picture Learning schools boast high school graduation rates of around 92 percent, and 95 percent of graduates are accepted to college, according to the nonprofit’s website.

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