By. Dr. Meg Cavalier, Executive Director, River’s Edge Academy, St. Paul, Minnesota
River’s Edge Academy’s vision is for all graduates to be academically, socially, and personally prepared to pursue life beyond high school with honor, empathy, honesty, perseverance, and a sense of exploration. Our charter high school, founded in 2009, is located on the West Side of St. Paul, Minnesota and serves a diverse population of students, including 68% who qualify for free or reduced-price meals and 40% who receive Special Education services. Our academic program provides students with experiential learning opportunities with an environmental focus, and sustainable topics are woven into content and elective classes. Staff support the whole student, meeting social, emotional, and health and wellness needs. One hundred percent of our graduates are accepted into a post-secondary institution in spite of the fact that some of our students come to us with first grade reading skills. This is accomplished through a comprehensive intervention and personalized learning model that allows students to learn through experience in a small, supportive community.
River’s Edge Academy utilizes a variety of structures to foster a college bound culture and support students in the process of researching, applying, and attending a post-secondary educational institution. Students are expected to read, write, and think like scientists and social scientists in the classroom, during fieldwork in the community, through service learning projects, and in daily all-school meetings. Learning expeditions (or projects) and service opportunities often have a focus on the environment. In addition, students are required to take a college specific course each school year. Freshmen participate in a ‘Transitions to High School’ course, where they learn study skills, healthy habits, and build positive relationships in the school community. Juniors enroll in a class that addresses the nuts and bolts of applying for college (e.g., college test preparation and registration), and participate in a job shadowing experience in a profession of interest. In their final year, students take a Senior Seminar that prepares them to write college essays, create resumes, obtain letters of recommendation, and write a high school reflection. Together, these opportunities prepare students for new experiences after leaving high school such as traveling, taking college courses, meeting a roommate, joining a club, and working and attending school at the same time.
A critical piece of a student’s academic journey at River’s Edge Academy is the creation of a portfolio that showcases high quality work and personal reflections on their educational goals. Students begin the year by setting goals based on academic data as well as the school’s values (honor, exploration, honesty, empathy, and perseverance). Guiding questions are provided to encourage specific and tangible goals. An example of an academic goal would be to increase reading fluency and stamina by reading at an appropriate level for 30 minutes a day. A character goal would be to persevere through the quarter and keep up with all school work. At the end of each quarter, students collect samples of their work to include in their portfolio, as well as evidence to demonstrate college and career exploration. Reflections on college visits and career inventories are also included and shared by students when they present their portfolios to their parents and significant others at student-led conferences.
Introducing students to possible careers is an important objective for River’s Edge Academy. Each year, the school hosts ‘Pizza with Professionals,’ where students have an opportunity to talk one-on-one and in small groups with professionals in a variety of fields. Participants are recruited through contacts in the school community, from school and district employees and community members, to parents, board members, and personal contacts of school staff. It is incredible to see the number of people who are willing to take time off from work to talk with our students! This two-hour workshop is structured so that students have 20 minutes in a classroom with 5-6 professionals, who share advice, discuss related training, and reflect about their careers and career paths. Staff members provide students with prompts to ask the right questions, and support when thinking how the professional’s experience relates to their own life.
Applying for college is a big deal for seniors at River’s Edge Academy, and each year the school community celebrates their accomplishments by participating in the national event ‘March to the Mailbox’ in early December. Students literally “march” to the mailbox and ceremoniously mail a portion of their college application. In the process, the entire school community acknowledges each student formally with banners, cheering, and clapping.
A Student Reflection on the River’s Edge Academy Experience
Every student at River’s Edge Academy is a success story and I wish I could share all of their stories with you! In the interest of space and time, let me leave you with the following reflection from Lanisha W. (REA class of 2016). She is currently a freshman at Inver Hills Community College studying Criminal Justice.
“School was a lot different for me before I came to River’s Edge. I started high school at a really big school. It was very stressful. I didn’t like going to school at all. During my freshman year I was bullied a lot by my peers. I had really bad anxiety problems and I wouldn’t want to go to school. With the help and support of the teachers at REA I was able to get caught up on credits. Some of the things that were helpful for me as a student at REA were having the ability to get the support that I needed from the staff, being able to take breaks during class if I was feeling overwhelmed, and working in small groups. I will never forget how much support and encouragement that I received my senior year. After coming to REA I learned a lot and gained a lot of skills. River’s Edge taught me how to become a powerful, respectful young lady and to always follow my dreams and never to give up even when stuff gets tough. Just take one foot in front of the other and keep going.“
Staff Reflections on College and Career Readiness
Teachers and school leaders at River’s Edge Academy were asked to reflect on the following question: What is the most valuable component of REA’s college and career readiness and why? Here are some of their responses:
“Teachers have the opportunity to build relationships with students during Crew (gender specific advisory with ten students). It’s one thing for a teacher to stand in front of a class and talk about college. Staff members naturally support crew members in one-on-one conversations.” – Emily Lundberg, English Teacher and Crew Leader
“The work students do to prepare for college and careers is unlike anything I’ve seen in my teaching career. REA students interact with post-secondary institutions and professionals in a variety of ways. Staff members support students in the transition process starting with career exploration, the application process, and financial aid. Our goal is to build a healthy perspective that college isn’t a scary thing that suddenly appears on the horizon your senior year. Rather, REA supports students throughout the four years of high school.” – Sky Davey, Humanities Teacher and Crew Leader
“River’s Edge Academy aims to tailor post-secondary planning to the student, there is not just one path or program that we promote. Representatives from Disability Services Departments at a variety of colleges come to REA and serve as a support for students. Students are not just a positive statistic. Post-secondary education looks really different for all of our students. We make sure we are finding the most rigorous post secondary option for each student.” – Leah Bauman-Smith, Special Education Teacher and Crew Leader
“The most valuable component of REA’s college and career readiness curriculum is that the community of staff and students value experiential education as a tool for preparing for the future. Skill building for both academics and character are equally as important to prepare students for the future, from the time they walk through the front door until they leave. REA is intentionally small, with no more than 88 students. Everyone is able to participate in fieldwork in the community and attend college visits. High expectations in the classroom and community encourage students to honor their needs and interests, explore new ideas and ask questions, accept challenges and face fears, put themselves in another person’s shoes, be genuine, and act responsibly. These skills directly affect their readiness for the future.” – Adrienne Eldridge, Student Affairs Administrator
About the Author
Dr. Meg Cavalier has served as the Executive Director at River’s Edge Academy since 2008. Meg has taught pre K – 12th grade including Special Education, Life Science, Earth Science, Chemistry, and Physics. She has experience as an Interpretative Naturalist at the Minnesota Zoo. Meg enjoys spending time with her family hiking, bird watching, and geocaching. Meg is committed to the vision of River’s Edge Academy and supporting students in their journey to graduation as well as post-secondary education. She is a licensed K-12 Principal and Superintendent. The environmental and experiential approach makes River’s Edge Academy an exciting and relevant place for Meg to lead.