New school pushes kids outside to learn

HAYDEN — Bill Rutherford’s life experiences make him the perfect candidate to launch an innovative school in the Coeur d’Alene School District.

He’s a chef, writer, psychotherapist, Air Force veteran and elementary school principal. That’s why he was assigned to create the Northwest Expedition Academy, a school devoted to teaching kids through real-life experiences.

“I couldn’t turn down something I believe is the right approach to education,” he said.

Rutherford wanted the classroom experience to be a place where kids use tools to research real-life issues and create projects to solve real-life problems. It’s called an expeditionary school — a place where kids spend as much time outside the classroom as inside.

“I want to have passionate learners who can’t wait to hear what the next answer is and students who will never stop exploring,” Rutherford said.

Bill Rutherford

Before creating the school, Rutherford asked himself:

  • How do I create a school where students learn and celebrate diversity and student success?
  • How do I challenge students to think critically?
  • Can I follow the research on how students learn and create a school where every kid is academically successful, emotionally nurtured and learns how to be successful in the real world?

The answers to these questions became the basis of the curriculum and the mission of the Northwest Expedition Academy.

Students learn through project-based curriculum, where students can ask questions, touch and feel their education. Students experience real work in the real world. Kids will tour job sites, businesses, lakes, forests, colleges, parks, mountains and museums to broaden their understanding of the world.

“Everything has to have a purpose around what we do,” he said.

Students in the poultry production club are raising chickens to gain math, business and marketing skills. The kids discover the price of food, egg income and creating a marketing plan to sell the eggs. Students make money and create a profit for their club.

To complete projects, which aren’t graded, students research, study, examine and perform to make a difference in the community. That is where chickens, water sampling, author visits and mill tours come in. Students use critical thinking, hands-on learning, journaling, observation, exploration, collaborative learning and strategic and scientific methods while learning through the Idaho core standards.

Once a project is complete, students give a presentation of what they experienced and learned to parents, teachers and community members and are evaluated on authenticity of their project.

Rutherford’s goal of project-based learning is for students to have a strong foundation in math and literacy.

These skills are taught by using the Buck Institute project-based learning philosophy and using inquiry-based learning and thinking strategies.

“My hope is to offer the community an alternative education for students who best learn by leaving their desk and venturing outside their classroom and leaving their comfort zone,” Rutherford said.

Students in each grade level complete an projects every four to six weeks.

“Foundational skills are imperative,” he said.

Jessica Moore’s fifth-grade class is designing their dream school. These students are working with architects who are developing a blueprint plan for the new Northwest Expedition Academy building expected to be completed in two years.

Although these students will never have a class in the new building, fifth-grader Colton Tucker wants future students to have the best library to find a book.

“This is the one chance I will get to help and come up with ideas to make a school,” Colton said. “Once the school is built, I can say I had a voice in the design.”

Northwest Expedition Academy opened in September and is located in an old district building built in 1936. The school is not a charter, but a zoned elementary school in the Coeur d’Alene School District serving 270 K-5 students and 23 teachers. Rutherford has received nearly $50,000 in grants to help fund the projects.

Coeur d’Alene voters approved a $35.5 million construction bond in March to help pay for the elementary school along with other school projects within the district.

“My daughters haven’t complained about school once this year,” said Ginny McMillen, a parent of Northwest Expedition Academy. “I find this school rewarding for my kids and  staff embraces and encourages parents.”

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