Building leaders: Checking in after 2 years of semester programs – Raise the Yurt

Alzar School | 11.05.14

Have you ever forgotten your anniversary?

In May 2010, after years of anticipation… years of building programs, acquiring permits, fundraising, etc, we set the date for our first day of our first semester program.  We didn’t know how we would find students that would be brave enough to tackle being our first semester.  We didn’t have a building for the first day of school and we hadn’t finalized our team of founding teachers, but we decided that August 13th, 2012 would be it.  That gave us a little over two years.

It was about as good of day as any… it was a Monday, it gave us the number of weeks were hoping for in a semester, and most importantly, it gave us a tangible date to tell sending schools and families.  We knew we had to take the plunge if we wanted to make it a reality.  We hit the road, promoting Semester 1 at over 200 schools around the country.  We recruited a team of educators that would help us build curriculum and lay out programs.

The last month of preparations was especially stressful.  The construction on campus wasn’t going as fast as we had hoped.  We were behind in trying to coordinate our recruiting tour to find students for the following school year.  We had one 12’x12’ office for 10 people to get their work done out of.  We made a deal that only one of the two of us was allowed to freak out at a time.

About two weeks before our first day, we turned to each other and asked, “Hey–is the first day of school August 13th?”  The answer was “Yes, we’ve had that scheduled for two years now.”   The next question we arrived at: “Isn’t that our six-year wedding anniversary?”  It was.


We decided we would celebrate privately on the 12th, knowing we wouldn’t want to miss out on the first night activities of the school’s existence.  Our “celebration” became frantically running up and down the aisles of Wal-Mart as we rushed to buy last minute supplies for the school.  Safety pins, trail mix, detergent, mattress covers.  Granola bars, sun screen, toilet paper.  It would have been great to know WHAT we actually needed to pull this school thing off.

We did stop and get a Blizzard at Dairy Queen.

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Students arrived August 13, 2012.  And since then, we have experienced highs and lows as we set out to sustain this school that we know can change lives and be a model for education.  We are succeeding in our mission of developing high school leaders who will make the world a better place.

Our challenge was that–thanks to supporters like you–we had been given the opportunity to bring this school fully to life, and entrusted with shepherding the creation of a permanent institution that would be a leader in education.  Every day there would be new challenges, some we could anticipate and some that would blindside us.  We were really fortunate, though, because our team of teachers were completely bought in.  They were ready to give it a go, to try to offer a truly special experience, holding ourselves and our students to high standards.

Those of you that have been following and supporting the Alzar School for a few years probably remember where we started.  The school was launched before Kristin and Sean were ever an “item.”  It began with a simple drawing on a posterboard. Starting in 2007, we ran 3-week academic  programs that used our house in Boise as an office.  We took students around Idaho, California, Mexico, and Chile.  Our first programs had 3 students on them.  Our first asset, which we were able to acquire thanks to an interest-free loan from Sean’s parents, was a used 15-passenger van.

Some of you probably also remember when we were desperately trying to raise money for a new-to-us truck, because that van we had purchased shot a spark plug out of the engine block for a second time effectively turning our sole asset into scrap metal and stranding us and our trusty sidekick Pebbles in Laramie, Wyoming, on our way to the Camp Cup, a program we run in North Carolina every summer.


Those short programs were key in developing our leadership curriculum and basic ideas about education.  Through them, we identified the key experiences that would shape our semester programs.  This is when we learned how to challenge students, and when it was ok for them to struggle, so they can learn to problem solve.  One of our favorite stories was when a student leader wanted to take the group to Conguillo National Park in Chile.  That year, the school had a very underpowered pickup in Chile, and the information on the park was that the road leading to it was a steep dirt road.  We reached a point where the truck just wasn’t going to make it up the hill with the trailer.  Cameron, our leader had to decide what to do… turn back, try unloading the trailer, or, as you can see here, harness the power of teenagers.

Importantly, we had students returning for multiple programs, affirming that we needed more time with students to have a deeper impact in their lives.


That first semester at the Alzar School is filled with memories…

On the first day of school (our anniversary), no buildings were entirely finished.  We greeted families dropping off their children at our Barn, but our contractor still needed to finish the covered area that would be our math classroom for the first few weeks.  There was no place for students or teachers to live, so we all camped on the beach.  And on Day 2 we headed off to the Salmon River for 8 days to wait for the Depot (our neighbor’s place, which we had rented) to become available.  When we returned, the yurts still weren’t finished, and students lived in the Depot sharing 2 bathrooms between 12 people.

Classes were held at/in/around our Barn, and most of our teachers were crammed into a rented house called “Howard’s Haven.”  Meals were cooked over a camp stove, or brought in from a local restaurant.  A few weeks into the semester, the yurts were finally open to students… but not the bathhouse.  We will never forget that first weekend that students were able to stay in the yurts.

They were in the middle of a wilderness first aid course and as a part of doing hands-on scenarios, students were covered in fake blood.  There was no place for them to shower, and so they came to class on Monday stained with pink streaks down their faces.


Garlic Bread

There are lots of small stories of us learning… Institutionally, we had never done a big food order from Sysco.  For the first few months of school, we were too busy to figure out how to order different kinds of bread.  So every meal was made with the one type of garlic bread recommended to us by the Sysco salesman.  The garlic bread was pretty delicious with spaghetti but pretty gross when made into French Toast.

We wanted to be a school that utilized mobile technology and was paperless, but the domestic internet service at the Depot and then the Barn couldn’t handle 20 people.  Study hall on the bouldering wall pads was a pretty cool idea, until our students started falling asleep.  Staff meetings were held in our living room.  Pebbles and especially Rauli (our 8-month-old lab puppy) were in everyone’s way.


We have come so far!  Today, students arrive to a beautiful campus, set in a stunning location.  For most of the out-of-state students, it is their first time to Idaho.  If they arrive for the Spring semester, it is often the first time they have seen this much snow!  The teachers can coach them through the systems that make the community function… and suddenly cook crew and dish crew aren’t monumental challenges to overcome, but a part of learning independence and responsibility.


The students move into their yurts on the first day… and many of them have never heard of yurts before.  But they have a home.  One that is cozy, and comfortable, and where they forge bonds with their classmates.  A couple of weeks ago, we had Parents’ Weekend.  A younger sister of one of our students came and we asked her what she thought of the school.  The first thing she told us was that she hadn’t really understood what the yurts were like.  She thought that the students did everything under a big tent, kind of like a circus tent.  The girls from this semester invited her to stay overnight with them in the yurt.  The next day, when we asked this sister if she would like to come to Alzar School some day, we got a definitive “yes.”


In these first two years, every semester has had the opportunity to be “firsts.”  Of course, for Semester 1 EVERYTHING was a first.  We had our first student from Chile, Ines, join us in the United States!  We were beginning to have cultural exchange that was truly two directions.

The streak continues… Semester 2 students were the first to complete a winter camping program.

The Semester 3 group was the first group to backpack in the Trinity Alps and they had the first Chilean male student, Joaquin.

This semester (Semester 4) was the first to visit and explore the Rio Puelo,


and the Owyhee Canyonlands.


These awesome students have been actively writing the history of the Alzar School.  As they do this, they are becoming the kind of leaders who will tackle real issues with a deep perspective.  The experiences they have with us shapes how they look at solving problems.


A couple of weeks ago, the group  was preparing for backpacking in the Owyhee Canyonlands not far from here in Eastern Oregon.  Before heading into this pretty remote country, our leaders got a chance to video conference with Chris Hansen of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a nonprofit conservation group.  He outlined his group’s rationale for why they would like to see the area protected as a “Wilderness area.”

Then, our group explored the area.  They hiked through the stunning red canyon walls and the expansive rolling hills covered with giant sagebrush.  They used map and compass to locate water caches.  It rained on them for 4 days straight.  On the last night, they were able to meet some of the local ranchers, who were a little surprised to see a group of soaking wet teenagers camping near one of the rough roads.  This ranching family, who had owned land adjacent to the proposed wilderness area for more than 100 years, stopped, offered fresh drinking water, and laid out the reasons that they were hesitant about the area becoming federally protected.  Our students were offered an authentic, valid perspective.

We believe that our students impressed the ranchers with their grit, and I believe the ranchers helped our students understand their perspective and why an issue as complicated as land conservation requires leaders who can build bridges and work with both sides.  Both Chris at the Oregon Natural Desert Association and the ranchers enthusiastically invited our future students to be in touch before launching their expeditions in the area.

Similarly, students are having life-changing experiences down in Chile.  Living and studying abroad for almost six weeks broadens their perspective in a way that no textbook lessons can.  This fall, our English and Spanish classes embarked on a project to deepen our relationship with the people of Choshuenco, which is our base in Chile.  They interviewed local residents in Spanish, writing profiles about their subject’s lives.  They were delighted to meet one of the residents, the owner of a small minimarket, who was fascinated by Hollywood movies and claimed that everyone in town thought he looked just like Al Pacino.  Our students shared photojournals about their own lives that they had created, at an asado (Chilean barbeque) which they coordinated.

These efforts are part of conversational challenges our teachers have developed to stretch students’ Spanish skills.  In class, students learn foundational vocabulary and practice with their teachers and Chilean peers in an environment that isn’t intimidating.  Then, the students reach out with their blossoming Spanish skills to accomplish very specific tasks that require them to apply the classroom lessons in real life.  One of our students, Elena from Philadelphia, reflected on these challenges, saying:

“The conversational challenges have taught me that it is not about how technically proficient I am, but that I make the effort to learn. So when a woman on our ferry trip to Argentina started talking to me, I didn’t turn and run, but listened intently and tried to communicate using what I knew. As we began to share snippets of our lives, I found that I didn’t need my sheet of paper scribbled with phrases and questions to use, but that I just needed confidence in my ability.”

This spring, our students visited a Mapuche family at their ranch in the Lake District.  They learned about the indigenous group’s history and traditions.  They played Uno with the family’s children and picked and ate blackberries straight from the bush.

The same group of students later traveled to the Rio Puelo, where they camped far from cell service, internet, and even electricity.  To get to the Puelo, the school drove to the end of the Pan-American highway, then boarded a ferry into Patagonia.  There, Loli (our host) showed them how the people living up and down the river communicate via handheld radio and cook dinner by candlelight.  And, they paddled on a pristine river.

The cultural exchange continues here in Idaho, with every semester so far including a Chilean student studying with us here.  It is one thing to travel to another country and be a visitor.  It is another, deeper thing to live with a person from another culture, to share every meal, to paddle rivers together, to push through the challenge of class projects.  In so many ways, our students are the same, but every now and then a cultural idiosyncrasy surprises us.

One day in Semester 3, our students needed to settle a small dispute, and as you know, there is only one way to settle a tie… “Rock, Paper, Scissor!” someone yelled.  We all expected Joaquin and Catalina, our two Chilean students that semester, to immediately start throwing their hands… but instead, the two hustled around the room.  The rest of us were confused as to what was going on!  Catalina dug into her backpack.  Joaquin darted all over the room.  It turns out, she was trying to pull out a sheet of paper and a pair of scissors and he was looking for a rock!

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One thing that we learned early on was the power of cultural exchange experiences between students from the US.  This is obvious when one of our Boise students shows the group around town here on a field trip.  Apparently ice blocking is not a “thing” everywhere, as popular as it is on Simplot hill.  Or, many of our students come from large urban cities like Atlanta.  When Kate, a student from Cascade, explained her 4-H show animal competitions, those city girls’ jaws drop.  Idaho students learn what it is like to go to a high school with 3,000+ students, what it is like to ride a subway around town, to appreciate the wild and barely used natural resources around them.

In the first two years as a semester program, we have brought together some amazing teenagers from all over the country.  We have had students from 25 cities, 15 states, and 2 countries.  Roughly a third of our students have been from right here Idaho.  We have been able to award almost $430,000 in financial aid to students.

If we continue on the trajectory that you supporters and our students have put us on, the school will be able to accomplish great things in the next 2+ years.

Areas that have been new to us programmatically will become areas that we are experts.  We will have developed relationships with nonprofit conservation groups and with local landowners, to make studying an area like the Owyhee Canyonlands an even deeper experience for students.

Here is what some of our students have to say about Alzar School.

The heart and the energy of each semester comes from the group of students that join us.  As we add more students, from wider and wider backgrounds, that energy will propel the school forward.  We believe that we will be known as the premiere semester school in the country.

We regularly marvel at getting the chance to talk with teenagers about the ways they want to make their communities a better place.  Our current students are just diving into planning how they will demonstrate their leadership back home.


In their semester at the Alzar School, every student takes a dedicated course called the “Capstone Leadership Course.”  They may not even realize it, but it is by far the most demanding course we have at the school.  The class meets formally in a traditional classroom all week on campus, but it also meets every Monday after school as part of “Whole School Community Meeting.”  Students hone leadership skills when they help out every day with cooking for the entire group and do chores to keep up our beautiful facility.  And of course, the students’ leadership skills are tested when they lead morning workouts as designated leaders of the day, when they make decisions about how to use their time, when they lead a weekend outing, when they volunteer to help a classmate load the trailer, or when they navigate on backpacking or paddling expedition.

In our more formal class, we start each semester with students looking at their communities back home and the community we try to build together at the Alzar School.  Then, we teach students about our “10 Elements of Leadership,” which is our vocabulary for studying leaders.  They profile themselves as leaders, delving into serious self reflection uncommon amongst teens their age.  They profile leaders working in their home communities, and they meet leaders tackling issues across the country.  They study theoretical models for creating community change, such as that of Marshal Ganz from the Kennedy School at Harvard.

Then, we pose a very pointed question, “How will you make an impact on the world?” and students begin to plan their “CLPs” (or, Culminating Leadership Projects), which are a way for them to demonstrate their leadership experiences in their home communities.   Here is what they want to do!

Last weekend, we had the chance to check in with the group who is working on their Culminating Leadership Projects right now.  Each group has raised the bar with what they have been able to get done, and it is incredible.  The CLP is a completely optional project that our alumni can tackle to demonstrate their leadership in their home communities.


One of the first successful projects was a community garden that Katherine built in Hammond, Louisiana.  With her action team, she was able to grow 12 species of organic vegetables to be distributed at the local food bank.  And, the beautiful ornamental flowers were used to decorate a local church.

Very often, our students want to share the passions they fueled at Alzar School through their CLPs.  Ben and Rutledge are both rabid kayakers… can’t stop thinking about it, talking about it, watching videos on YouTube about it. This Spring, for his CLP, Ben has been working with a nonprofit organization that connects youth and adults with disabilities to adventures.  He is coordinating a kayak clinic for the group.

Rutledge just hosted a kayak race on the Nantahala River that raised money for American Whitewater, a national nonprofit conservation group.  They have taken a passion and built on top of it.

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Similarly, Isabelle, from Atlanta, joined the Alzar School because she was drawn to the opportunity to immerse herself in Spanish language.  In Chile, she helped translate surf lessons given in Spanish.  She learned to make sopapillas and empanadas from comradely local chefs.  She found the Chileans so welcoming to her learning Spanish that she wanted to reciprocate with English-language learners.  For her CLP, she hosted tutoring sessions for non-native English-speakers.

Here in Idaho, several of our students have completed great projects.  Kaylee created a weekend program that taught younger students several of the leadership lessons from her experience at Alzar School while taking them camping in Riggins.  Grady worked with a local nonprofit for their summer event “Paddle Out Cancer.”  Kate created an after school math tutoring program for high school students.  Brady taught kids the basics of bike repair.  Crosby made it possible for every 4th through 6th grader at his school to learn how to cross country ski.

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Sometimes the success of a project surprises our alumni.  Jessica, who loves art, created “Drawing Connections,” which connected artists in McCall with elementary school students who wanted to learn more about drawing and painting.  For several weeks this spring, the elementary students joined Jessica and local artists at the library.  She thought she would be lucky to get 10-15 kids to participate in the program.  In the end, she was teaching 19-22 students each week.  The group created a collaborative piece that will be displayed in the McCall library later this summer.

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You support the Alzar School because, at some point in your own story, you learned that it isn’t that hard to get involved, and to give of yourself.  But in fact, only 25% of US residents volunteer and it is on the decline, with 2013 being the lowest year since 2002.  And sadly, of people who do volunteer, only 13% are between the ages of 16-19.  Volunteering drops during the college years… with only 9% of volunteers being college age.  It saddens us to think that teens and young adults, who have the most optimism and energy, aren’t stepping forward as community leaders.


Imagine how wonderful it will be when there is a small army of teens out there each semester tackling projects that they are excited about.  We estimate CLPs to be 100-hour projects, which includes the time students plan, prepare, and implement their projects, and the efforts they coordinate from the peers they engage.  Alzar School alumni leaders inspire, and they pull more teenagers into the habit of serving their communities.  According to, having friends that volunteer regularly is the primary factor influencing a teen’s volunteering habits.  Over 70 percent of young people with friends who regularly volunteer also volunteer.  Studies show that those teenagers who are consistently involved in service to their community during high school will likely continue participation in college, with a deepening commitment to service.  In other words, Alzar School alumni are on a track that will help them be lifelong contributors to their communities.

We see our students leading beyond their CLPs too.  Aaron, a Boise student, was selected to by the mayor to serve on the city’s Council on Children and Youth.  Lexi helps lead a sketch comedy group at her college.  Burke helped create an outdoor club at his high school.  Five alumni are currently living/working/studying abroad.  Isabelle continues to work with “La Amistad,” a nonprofit that works with non-native English speakers.

As we mentioned before, the energy and soul of the school comes from the students who are here for the semester.  At the beginning of every program the school has ever offered, we have always stressed that, by definition, the Alzar School is owned by the students who it serves.  That sense of ownership has started to pay off in a big way.


At the end of last year, we put out a small email to see if there was any interest in our alumni returning to do service work on campus.  We made an offer that we thought would be lucky to get any bites… Alumni could come and stay on campus and we’d house and feed them.  For 6 hours a day, we would work on campus… cleaning brush, building trail & stairs, a fire pit, etc.  Hard work!  And then, they could go and kayak at the whitewater park in the afternoons.  Within a ½ hour of sending out a very basic email, about 10 alumni were back in touch excited to come and be a part of helping improve this place.  More than anything, we think they wanted to reconnect with this very special place.


We see the alumni serving the mission of the school in so many ways.  Alumni host parties at their homes so other young people can learn about the school.  Several serve on our Advisory Committee and participate in specific projects to benefit the school’s efforts.  The Alzar School alumni are the support net that is holding this place up.

Last week, two of our alumni made a point of coming out to help at the Idaho Gives event that helped us raise funds for the new yurt. One of them, Jessica, was slung across the ice on a disc by a human slingshot!

Right now, another alumna (Lizzy) has been helping us refine our Camp Cup program, reaching out to coaches and sponsors to expand support for the event.  Recently, one of our students couldn’t go backpacking because of a broken foot.  Two local alumni dropped everything to come and support her while the rest of the group was away.


As the alumni network grows, the Alzar School will benefit from having confident, effective leaders around the country.  We know that word-of-mouth marketing will make finding students so much easier.  People are already starting to have heard of Alzar School.  Alumni will help fund an endowment that makes the financial aid we offer sustainable, and we will get to provide this experience to any qualified student.  When an alumni travels somewhere… perhaps for a college visit, they’ll be able to look up other Alzar School alumni.  They’ll share stories of their common experiences, whether it is eating a fresh empanada at the Pacific Ocean or struggling under a heavy backpack up a steep hill.   This network of alumni will be what sustains the school.

 We have all been teenagers before, and we remember the angst that comes with it.  It is a time when we were filled with energy and optimism, but at the same time nervous and intimidated.


Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of school (from City Year).  Gallup asked U.S. teenagers to select the three words from a list of adjectives that describe how they usually feel in school.  The word that researchers found chosen most often?


 Researchers have found that school climate was the single biggest predictor of teens feeling connected to their schools.  If a student feels connected to her school, she is less likely to be involved in risky behaviors, such as substance abuse, violence, and deviant behavior.

Every semester, after students return from Chile, they have a short break back in their home communities.  This gives them a few days off from the busy hustle and bustle of the school, and allows them to share the stories of their expedition abroad with family and friends.

How many of you remember the feeling of returning to school after Spring Break?  Maybe not dread… but certainly not glee.  This March, we were lucky enough to be on the team that picked up our students from the Boise airport.  When the first student arrived, we expected to fill her in about the flight statuses of her peers and what the plan was for collecting everyone before heading back up to Cascade.  Instead, she told us where everyone was, and what everyone had done for the break.  They had been quick to connect, excited to return to school.  And then, when the first student came out of security, the two of them ran to embrace and immediately started talking about what they were excited about.  This scene repeated itself over and over as each new classmate joined us.  They had created the type of climate that made school engaging, desirable.

Last year, on top of all the inherent challenges of running our first full year, we went through a full re-accreditation review by the Northwest Accreditation Commission.  A team of educators descended upon the school to make sure we were up to the same standards that Boise High or Timberline are held to.  In the classroom, the reviewers saw students collaborating on documents in real time through mobile devices.  They saw students leading Harkness discussions about character.  Outside the classroom, the reviewers saw students helping each other problem solve to get across the river for a scenario.  They saw students wielding brooms and mops to clean up after themselves after dinner.  They saw a community of learners committed to becoming leaders, what we hope every school can someday offer.

While our students were away on that backpacking trip in the Owyhees, one of the accreditation team members returned to campus with a principal and a superintendent from a small public school in rural Idaho.  They wanted to learn from us… to see how we are implementing lessons.  We spent a quick hour talking just about how we use iPads in the classroom and in the field.  It was obvious that we needed more time to sit down and discuss how to implement the strategies that are effective at Alzar School.


The teachers and the students of the Alzar School have created a place where they are excited to learn and to challenge themselves.  It is incredible to see.  We want to see as many teenagers as possible discover a community where that is the case… where trying and succeeding is applauded, where trying and failing is OK and you can learn from it and bounce back.

We can do this by being a model for other schools and programs and by allowing others to connect with the Alzar School experience.  Our teachers are committed and passionate.  As they have honed the Alzar School curriculum, it gets better and better, and it becomes possible to share with others.

Long term, we will have teacher education programs where teachers come to Alzar School and observe and learn from our teachers.  We will build theater seating in the back of a classroom and fill it with folks who want to take some of the principles we live by at the school and implement them in their own schools.   We will offer professional development clinics for practicing teachers.

We will expand our teaching fellowship program for young professionals who are considering taking up the noble work of teaching.

We will provide an online leadership course for students that cannot attend in person, and connect our expeditions using mobile technology to other classrooms that can learn by following our adventures vicariously.

In this way, the reach of Alzar School will continue to grow.


If someone asks us why we started the Alzar School, the shortest and most direct answer we can give is that it is the type of school that we would have wanted to go to.  We believe that you are in this room because it is the type of school you would have thrived at too.  In building this school, all of us are making it possible for more teens to discover themselves, to challenge themselves to step up as leaders who will make the world a better place around them.

It is obvious that the world needs leaders, people with the vision and courage to act.  Together, we are building those leaders.  And together we can make it possible for even more teenagers to step into roles as community leaders.

In the first couple of years as a semester program, we have really seen our programs take off and word is getting out around the country.  Word is getting out that somewhere in Iowa or Ohio or maybe Idaho, there is a pretty special school, doing something pretty unique.  We have received nearly triple the number of applications for student spaces.  When we put out a job advertisement for one teaching position, we get dozens of applications from talented, passionate educators who want to be a part of this movement.

Supporters like you have been here for the school since day one.  Back in 2010, when the van broke down and we needed supporters to help us get a truck to keep offering our programs, you were there.  When we needed to find a forever home, you were there again.  Thank you for being a part of the Alzar School’s history, and for making this all possible.

Thank you.


There is a very simple challenge right now.  Each student yurt can hold a maximum of 8 students, and 8 is FULL.  For Fall 2014, we already have 8 wonderful female students incoming, and two more awesome applicants who would love to come if we can find the space.

We have the opportunity to build a yurt this summer to reach even more students.

We need to finish raising $80,000 by June 1st to get that yurt built over the summer, so we can impact the lives of even more teenagers next year.

Today, you can help.  A supporter has stepped up with a $20,000 matching donation (he will match all donations up to $20,000) to get this yurt built.  Earlier this month, on Idaho Gives, the school raised $4,500, and at our annual breakfast on May 10, we raised another $5,000.  So now, we are just $30,000 from our goal.

Please consider donating today.  If you believe in the mission and work of the Alzar School, you can make a multiple-year pledge to help sustain us as we continue to grow.