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End of the experiment

WVSD’s RiverCity academy has helped many succeed

RiverCity Leadership Academy in the West Valley School District will close its doors for good at the end of the school year.

“It’s really hard,” said John Rice, a 15-year-old sophomore. “It’s almost like RiverCity is family.”

Principal Barb Knauss said there were several reasons to close the school that started in 2005. Among them, a state requirement that teachers have endorsements to teach certain courses. There is no biology lab at the school, which is housed in the Millwood School, though students often travel to the West Valley Outdoor Learning Center for biology and have classes through the Bureau of Land Management. Also, other districts in the area now offer programs similar to RiverCity, which cuts down on the school’s enrollment. Administrators projected 17 students would return next year.

“The decision to close the school doesn’t come from a lack of success,” said teacher Ned Fadeley.

A Gates Foundation grant funded the school in the beginning, Fadeley said. Student projects often involved educational trips. They have been to Washington, D.C., various national parks, Japan, various reservations, Grand Coulee Dam and the Oregon Coast.

The grant expired, and enrollment – which topped out at 42 – wasn’t high enough to reapply.

When the school opened, it was hoped enrollment would reach 120.

Fadeley said some of his former students are now in medical school, one is working as an Army medic, some are musicians and artists.

Fadeley said that when the decision was made, he and Knauss – the school only has one and a half full-time teachers – met with parents of the 17 students to discuss options for next year. The students will be spread out through West Valley High School, Spokane Valley High School, Spokane Valley Tech and Contract Based Education.

But Fadeley said he and the students will miss their relationships with each other more than anything else.

Fadeley also said the school was much like an extended family. It gave students a place they can come to school and feel safe and ready to learn every day.

“For a lot of those kids, it was not their reality (before RiverCity),” he said.

He said RiverCity students typically fall into three categories. Some of them were highly motivated and bright, but didn’t appreciate the social aspect of a traditional high school setting. Others have parents who like the control they have over the subjects their children are exposed to, often because of religious or political beliefs. Then there are the students who just aren’t succeeding in a traditional school and are looking for a fresh start.

Emma Stevenson is a 14-year-old freshman who attended West Valley City School, a project-based school for students in grades five through eight. She said that when she heard about RiverCity, she ran toward the opportunity to attend.

“I loved City School,” she said. “This place has been a lot of fun.”

The classes are project-based and Fadeley has no set curriculum. This fall, the movie “Argo” introduced the subject of the Iran hostage crisis to the students, so they spent a unit studying it.

“RiverCity has been a way to get out of reality for a little bit,” said Jacob Simmons, a junior. In a small setting, he said, he gets to know other students he wouldn’t have known in a traditional setting, and he can expand the number of people in his life he can trust.

Melody Fyre, a freshman, said she really loves the family aspect of the school, but understands the reality of why it must close.

She said she sees the staff and how much work they put into their education – Fadeley often works not only as a teacher, but as a counselor, yearbook coordinator, administrator, nutrition services coordinator, transportation director, PE teacher and more; Fyre said he has a lot on his shoulders.

“I don’t think the school could go on as it has been going on,” she said.