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Get Out There

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School on the River Less Traveled


School. The word quite often reverberates moans, groans, excuses, and stress throughout homes everywhere. It is rigidly defined in the dictionary as, “An institute for giving systematic instruction, or the buildings used by such an institution,” but whoever said that “school” couldn’t be redefined?

What if school was a place to learn without walls and boundaries? What if it was a place where students could map out a micro-hydro power facility on a small self-sufficient island on the Nile River in Uganda for a physics project, or study number and food vocabulary by going shopping at a market in Chile for Spanish class? What if school could be held in open-air restaurants, along the banks of rippling streams, or in any place that looks comfortable, convenient, and constructive on any particular day? What if school combined the health of mind and body, and focused not only on facts, but also on how to expand them based on personal interest and individual exploration?

It makes perfect sense, yet seems all too dreamlike, but, lo and behold, this is the definition of school in the case of New River Academy, a traveling kayak high school based out of Fayetteville, West Virginia. Here, students carry out the essentials of formal education, while at the same time receiving an education of the world. The academy spends their first and last quarters in the U.S. and Canada, and then heads south for their winter quarters to live and learn in such places as Costa Rica, New Zealand, Uganda, and Chile.

Clockwise: Slacklining in Chile; Hauling kayaks to the Nuble Valley; Yoga on the Rio Claro bridge; Students atop the Volcan Villarica.


Wayne Poulsen, 15, the son of Sun Valley locals Craig and Alison Poulsen, started attending New River Academy this past fall. Wayne began to learn to whitewater kayak the previous year in the Valley, attending pool sessions at the YMCA and doing day trips over Galena Summit to the Salmon River whenever he could.

The teenager was hooked, and when he heard about New River, he was immediately sold. However, while he signed up simply to go kayaking every day with some of the best coaches in the world, he ended up getting much more than he could have imagined. The school has six full-time teachers and caps its enrollment at 15 students. So as Wayne describes, “It’s more focused for each student’s personal needs. It’s easier to learn here, and you learn a lot faster with one to three students in each class than you would at a regular school.”

Students typically wake up every morning for a yoga, strength or cardio workout before breakfast, have a full day of school, and then go kayaking. They’re so active that they’ll sit down for class contentedly, and in terms of getting homework done, the best motivation of all looms over this paradise of education—if you don’t do your work, well then you don’t get to go kayaking. Needless to say, it’s the norm for students to stay on top of any class from calculus to AP English.

Left to right: Kayaking coach and Spanish teacher Lorenzo Andrade Astorga dives in; View of the Rio Claro from above.


Being in exotic locations and having to figure out such things as how to cook dinner for 20 people in half an hour results in your average 16-year-old learning just as much outside of the “classroom” as in it. New River Academy scholars take music classes in Chile, visit schools in Africa and are encouraged to fully explore and immerse themselves in their surroundings.

Students who are beginner kayakers as well as students who are on the U.S., Canadian, and New Zealand National Teams, learn, work, and play together and, upon graduation, have moved on to attend Ivy League colleges, own successful media companies and thrive as professional kayakers.

One might speculate that much of the students’ (and the school’s) success comes from New River Academy’s philosophy of “And that has made all the difference,” taken from Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Less Traveled.” When asked about the philosophy, founder of the school David Hughes states, “This slogan has guided every large school decision and served as a reminder as to why we’re here. As teachers, we should strive to make a difference and for us that difference comes via challenging ourselves daily, academically and athletically, and exploring cultures, traveling and fully engaging ourselves. Really, I wanted to remove kids from TV, video games and the Internet. It’s an active environment and that’s real life.”

And perhaps that’s school as it should be.

-Kira Tenney, a Community School graduate and literature teacher for the New River Academy
-photos courtesy New River Academy


Sun Valley Magazine encourages its readers to post thoughtful and respectful comments on all of our online stories. Your comments may be edited for length and language.

Jun 21, 2011 04:35 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Thanks for these listing and little write ups. They are helpful.

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