There are no classrooms at Riverpoint Academy in the Mead School District and that’s just the way the students and teachers like it.
The STEM school, located in a former motorcycle showroom at 11008 N. Newport Highway, has two large open spaces separated by a science lab, which is currently home to some glass beakers, rabbits, geckos, fish and a turtle named Sheldon who is the school’s unofficial mascot.
Students sit by themselves, in pairs or in groups, typing on laptops as they huddle around tables or sprawl in chairs. Teachers meet with students alone or in small groups to discuss ongoing projects. There are no bells, no rows of tables and no lectures.
“You will very rarely see a teacher in front of students and if you do it’s no more than 10 students,” teacher Matt Green said.
The school is highly individualized. Each student is required to take one core course each semester. There are only four core classes, so students end up taking the same class multiple times. But since students are given a lot of freedom in what they study, material does not get repeated, Green said.
“Typically, it’s a deeper explanation of things,” he said.
One of the core classes is Inventioneering, which includes everything from 3-D modeling to manufacturing to U.S. History to the humanities. The school of 170 students has eight teachers that teach each core course in pairs.
The back part of the school is a “maker space” full of equipment, including 3-D printers, laser cutters and a CNC machine. Currently some students are fine-tuning the model airplanes they designed and will fly. The space smells of sawdust and students often perch their laptops next to scraps of wood.
Much of the equipment in the school has been paid for by grants, Green said. The school has received $180,000 in grants since it opened five years ago. About $100,000 of that has come from the Hagen Family Foundation.
Just recently the school received a $10,000 grant from the Spokane Aurora Northwest Rotary Club to provide equipment for the science lab.
There is little equipment currently in the lab, Green said. “This is still too multipurpose,” he said. “They’re building out a real science lab.”
There is a waiting list of students who want to enroll in the school. Most of the current students come from the Mead district, but others can enroll as space is available. The school started out with only juniors but now accepts freshmen through seniors.
Students are allowed to set their own pace and most soon learn how to manage their time efficiently, Green said.
“You can’t just do the stuff that you love,” he said. “If you get your stuff done, you have the freedom to explore what you want. Any student has full access to our equipment and technology.”
Some students do struggle with time management at first, but that’s just part of the learning process, Green said. “We want kids to learn by doing,” he said. “Failure is part of the process.”
As a STEM school Riverside Academy is not about just adding science and math classes, Green said. “We think STEM only makes sense in a humanities context,” he said.
The challenge for teachers is knowing how much leeway to give students in the less structured environment that exists inside Riverpoint Academy.
“We have the opportunity to really individualize a lot,” he said. “We saw an opportunity to make this all about the kid in a way that you can’t do in a traditional school.”