Finishing Year 3, Extending the Vision

Alzar School | 01.05.15

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Each semester, the Alzar School asks our students to challenge themselves.  In the course of their semester, they find themselves consistently stretched.  There are long days on the trail, backpacking through the Owyhee Canyonlands.  There are epic study sessions as they engage in rigorous, college preparatory courses that equip them with the critical thinking skills to be thoughtful leaders.  And there are the meaningful culminating leadership projects students plan for implementation in their communities.  In their career as leaders, joining the Alzar School for a semester is just the launch of a lifelong journey towards being community leaders who work to make the world around them a better place.

The Alzar School provides transformative experiences for students… experiences that push them out of their comfort zones, and in the process challenge them to become leaders who are passionate and engaged in their communities.  We do this through the integration of rigorous academics, cultural exchange, and outdoor adventure.

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Metta (Cascade, Idaho) and Settie (Cleveland, OH) practice teamwork (and have some fun) on the Rio Petrohue in Chile.

Each year, we have refined our experiment in education to improve our programs.  There is a loose association of similar schools, called the Semester Schools Network, which requires for membership that a school has completed three years of operation.  The idea is that an out-of-the-box school that can “make it” for three years is likely to be around for the long haul.  So, since our first semester, finishing year 3 has been a benchmark we have looked forward to.  We are here tonight to celebrate the Alzar School’s successes, and we’re proud to be wrapping up an amazing year filled with many accomplishments.

We have been able to have this success thanks to supporters like you!

One of our alumni, Charlotte (from Maine), says this about her semester:

“The best experience of my life: learning from/being inspired by my peers and mentors all while spending my days on beautiful rivers and mountains.  I’ve learned what it means to be a leader, be a follower, be independent, be aware of my surroundings, and to manage risk, among many other things.  Two years later I find myself being grateful everyday to have been part of such a community.”  – Charlotte, Fall 2012

Boise BBQ Presentation - 4.22.2015 (4)Last year, we asked for supporters’ help in funding a new yurt for students.  We had a goal of raising $80,000, and thanks to donations big and small, we GOT THERE.

With the additional yurt, we are up to our largest semester yet, with 19 students.  Many of these students would not be having this life changing experience right now if it hadn’t been for your support.  This year, we have really expanded our draw, attracting students from all over the world… NYC, Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, Memphis, Baton Rouge, Charleston, Denver, United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Spain, Chile… and of course, Boise, Cascade, and McCall, Idaho.

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The growth of the semester program has been incredible to be a part of, for so many reasons.  First and foremost, we love that more motivated teenagers are able to have this experience and we are able to accomplish our mission of developing young leaders on a larger scale.

This year, a visible symbol of our increased presence has been our new school bus, which transports our students to their expeditions here in the States.  With increased enrollment, we have been able to add two more full time positions at the school.  We have exceeded our staff housing capacity on campus.

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Our programs become increasingly rich and varied.

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Chris, a Boise student in our current semester, celebrates completing a rapid on the Rio Petrohue in southern Chile.  This was a new river for the school this year.  Chris had the chance to explore and push himself in environments that were stimulating.

Research continues to support the innovative efforts we are making at the school.  Dave Paunesku, Executive Director of PERTS at Stanford University, was in Boise just last week at the Idaho Ed Session, talking about the impact of a growth mindset for educational outcomes.  This directly speaks to one of Alzar School’s 10 elements of leadership, continual learning and improvement.  At the Alzar School no one is “bad” at math, or the best at everything.  The community looks for improvement over all else.

Gallup Education recently released the State of America’s Schools: The Path to Winning Again in Education report, which noted:

  • There are three factors linked to success at school and beyond: hope, engagement, and well-being.  These three factors have been shown to drive students’ grades, achievement scores, retention, future employment and happiness. Students who strongly agree that their school is committed to building students’ strengths and that they have a teacher who makes them excited about the future are almost 30 times as likely to be engaged learners as their peers who strongly disagree with both statements.
  • The holistic approach to education at the Alzar School defines education in broader sense, asking students how they want to lead their own lives, and partners them with a mentor who supports them through the semester with weekly one on one check ins and makes them excited about the future…and what we see is engaged learners!

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This is what mentors traveling with students looks like.  At the Alzar School education means laughing together, studying together, exploring together, and supporting one another.  Students know their teachers in and outside of the classroom and because of this tight knit community students broaden perspectives by becoming aware of how their individual actions impact others.

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The mentor relationship covers academics, physical/emotional health, and serves as a sounding board for personal growth.  This relationship carries well past the semester and one of long term benefits of the semester experience.

This is engaged education!
This is engaged education!  Students at the Mapuche community in Chile.

The experiences at Alzar School set students up for academic success after high school.  As Isaac, Fall 2013 student from Cincinnati put it:

“I expect that Alzar School itself helped in my college applications, but I know that what I had to say about the unparalleled growth, broader perspective, and deeper understanding of life I learned at Alzar School was a true differentiator.”

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Periodically, we have the opportunity to check in with our graduates as they work as leaders in their home communities.  Thanks to technology like Google Hangouts, we can all chat face to face, even though we are spread out around the globe.  Across the board, they miss their time at the Alzar School, but are engaged leaders in their communities.  Their teachers write to let us know that they return motivated, confident, and ready to lead.

Veronica and classmates describe work on their Culminating Leadership Projects
Veronica and classmates describe work on their Culminating Leadership Projects via Google Hangouts

Our leaders are in action around the country.  This fall, Cameron created the “Search the Bayou” program to educate kids about the local watershed.

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In Alabama, Lily worked to get middle school students engaged in the outdoors by teaching them the basics of whitewater kayaking.

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In Chile, Jose Ignacio transformed a weed-filled lot behind his youth group’s headquarters into a future green space for reflection by planting and caring for 100 trees.  He recruited a team of 6-8 volunteers for the initial planting and spent hours each week watering and weeding.

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Our leaders are initiating programs all over the country… They are filled with ideas of how they would like to see their communities improve, and the confidence to act.  Harrison’s idea for “Unacceptable” (Durham, NC) is an anti-bullying program at his school.  Veronica (Memphis, TN) is creating a community garden to grow produce at her school which is in a food desert through her “Seeds of Change.”  Valentina wants to connect US students with English Language Learners in Brazil, Jasmine wants to stimulate creative thinking through improv clinics, Derek wants to expand the mountain biking opportunities for kids in his hometown.

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Applications for students to join the Alzar School are coming in like never before.  Each year, we have seen growth, but at the end of our third year, it is obvious that the word is out there.

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It’s exciting to have survived and thrived during the first three years as a semester school, especially considering that we launched just at the tail-end of a serious economic recession.  We look forward to continued growth and sustainability.

The Confluence Building will transition (as designed) to where all spaces are classrooms, necessitating a “Headwaters” building for teacher workspace, a giant classroom to host the whole school, and administrative offices.  2 more student yurts and another teaching fellow yurt will round out the student housing.

With increased numbers of staff, we find ourselves having to move off campus to make sure there is space for all of our teachers to live on campus.

We will continue to rehabilitate our beautiful riverfront campus, with more and more native plants returning each year.  We would love to power the facilities with solar panels stationed in the field behind our Barn.  We will add staff members to coordinate more of the programming, enhancing our offerings, easing the tremendous workload of all of our staff and faculty.

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We will continue to explore new places and build relationships wherever we go.  Most recently, we have begun the process of establishing a long term partnership with Los Escualos.  This is a kayaking club started in Cochrane, Chile, at the end of the Carretera Austral on the Rio Baker.  We will likely soon begin taking our students to spend 5 days on the Rio Baker with these young paddlers, who have learned to kayak with the simplest of equipment and resources.

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We continue to be extremely enthusiastic to have students from Idaho making up a significant proportion of our population.  Our Idaho students are amazing ambassadors for this state, showcasing the leadership potential of our local students.  In our first three years, we have had 20 of our 74 students from Idaho.  We are committed to continuing to bring some of Idaho’s best students to the Alzar School, giving them the chance to test their mettle against other great teens from around the country.

Financial aid has been critical in making all of this possible.  In our three years as a semester program, we have been able to award over $622,000 in financial aid, with an average award size of over $8,500.  Of that, over $297,000 has gone to Idaho students (average award size for Idaho students is more than $15,600).

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This year, we have launched the “Paddle for Leaders” program to allow supporters like you to get in on the adventure and challenge of developing the next generation of leaders.

Back in 2004, when we started the Alzar School by sketching out a campus on posterboard with a couple of Crayola markers, we anticipated the journey ahead would challenge us.  From running the entire school out of our living room, to the school’s sole asset, a used van, breaking down on our first summer expedition, to starting our Semester 1 with no complete buildings… creating this one-of-a-kind school has been a feat of endurance, a demonstration of persistence in the face of many obstacles.

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In one day, (May 7th, 2015) I will paddle from Payette Lake, high in the river’s watershed, down the upper North Fork of the Payette River, across Cascade Reservoir, and back onto the river, passing the Alzar School’s campus.

At Cabarton Bridge, supporters will join me on rafts, finishing the journey in Smith’s Ferry.   In tackling such a mighty endeavor, we hope to inspire others to join us in this journey of building an innovative school.

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Besides Sean’s challenge, several of our alumni have created their own paddling challenges to help raise funds for our scholarship program.

Alec, from here in Boise, will be seeing how many rolls he can complete consecutively.  Kaylee, from Cascade, will be joining me for the final 20 miles of my journey on May 7.  John and Lizzy, in North Carolina, have created SUP and freestyle challenges for themselves.  All of these alumni want to pay forward their experience so other teenagers can have the same transformative semester.  Many more alumni families have donated to this effort.

The Paddle for Leaders program, so far, has been a big success, but there is still a journey ahead of us.  We have a lot of ways that you can join us, making it possible for more teenagers to have this experience.  You can donate any time from today through May 7th (which is Idaho Gives) via our website at  You can choose to support my paddle, or you can donate towards any of the alumni challenges.

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Alternatively, you can bid online to support our Paddle for Leaders program.  Companies and individuals around the country have donated items to the school.  When you bid on an item, 100% of those dollars will go to our scholarship campaign.  The auction ends with Sean’s paddle on May 7th.  Visit the auction here.

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There are so many ways to Paddle for Leaders!  We invite you to join us at the Shore Lodge on May 6, 8-10pm.  Here, there will be raffle prizes, drinks and appetizers, and the chance to celebrate the launch of Sean’s paddle with other supporters.  Register for that event here.

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Thanks to support from Idaho Whitewater Unlimited, the first 12 supporters who donate $100 or more can join Sean for the last section of my paddle… by rafting the Cabarton section of the NF Payette on May 7th.  Then, stick around to celebrate the finish in Smith’s Ferry with current and past students, board members, and staff.

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Lastly, if you’re wanting to really “paddle for leaders,” consider joining us on the Wild & Scenic Main Salmon river this summer.  Thanks to a partnership with Momentum River Expeditions, you can spend 6 amazing days this summer floating through one of Idaho’s gems, and significant proceeds from the trip benefit our scholarship program.

Join me, Kristin, Cailin, and other supporters on this luxury trip.  For one person, the required contribution is $2,150 (the retail value of the trip), but it gets even more cost effective in groups.

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Thank you for supporting us in 2014-2015, we appreciate everything you have done and continue to do to support the Alzar School.  If you would like to contribute, you can donate directly from

– Sean & Kristin Bierle