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Carr has thrived under RiverCity’s nonconventional approach

RiverCity Leadership Academy senior Taylor Carr works her shift as a manager at the Garland Theater on May 2. (Tyler Tjomsland)
RiverCity Leadership Academy senior Taylor Carr works her shift as a manager at the Garland Theater on May 2. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Taylor Carr has never considered herself a traditional learner.

After going through a Montessori program in elementary school, she moved on to junior high at Sacajawea Middle School, and the transition to a more uniform educational structure took its toll.

“It’s like my wanting to learn just evaporated,” Carr said. She was a bright, motivated student with interests in a variety of subjects, but she never found a sense of place at Sac.

By the time she had reached high school at Lewis and Clark, she had stopped wanting to go to school altogether. “Sometimes I’d skip class just to sit in the parking lot,” she said. “I didn’t want to be there.”

In Carr’s second year at LC, a friend told her about RiverCity Leadership Academy, an alternative high school in the Valley. She transferred to RiverCity halfway through her sophomore year, where the comfortable, personalized environment reinvigorated her desire to learn, and she has been thriving ever since.

Her personal interests are constantly evolving: When she began at RiverCity, she was engrossed in Henry David Thoreau and his concept of civil disobedience; now her attention is toward feminist art and the media’s portrayal of women.

But she’s also fascinated with philosophy, psychology and the inner-workings of government, and somewhere down the line she sees herself with a radio show or a podcast, a la “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross.

RiverCity has allowed Carr to explore all of these avenues outside the realm of standardized tests and homogenous grading. There is the occasional lecture or worksheet packet, but the curriculum is mostly project-based, with students presenting to their classmates on the subjects of their choosing.

The presentation format is also open to interpretation – some kids stick to posterboard and PowerPoint, while others have hosted themed tea parties and produced film projects starring students and staff.

“A lot of people don’t think schools like this are an option,” Carr says of RCLA, which is certainly a more laid-back, hands-on environment than your typical high school. The students only work with two full-time teachers and are on a first-name basis with them, and they are encouraged to study subjects attuned to their individual strengths.

This teaching style has helped Carr and other students like her to think of school as a priority rather than a nuisance. “We’ve found our own way to learn,” she says, “and that’s not always appreciated by the A-B-C structure of traditional high school.”

Outside of academics, Carr is a general manager at the Garland Theater, which she says has instilled in her a tremendous sense of discipline. “It really deepened my appreciation for teachers and what they do,” she explains.

After high school, Carr will attend Evergreen State College, which also values nonconventional education. “I’d like to pursue school beyond a bachelor’s degree,” she says, although she has yet to decide on which major to pursue. She’s leaning toward psychology: “I like knowing what makes people tick.”

This marks the last operational year of the RiverCity Leadership Academy, but Carr says she owes any future success to the school’s individual approach to learning. “If there were more students like Taylor here, we would still be thriving,” Carr’s teacher Ned Fadeley said. “Very few people her age possess her level of intellectual curiosity.”