A Meeting of the Minds on the River

Back to school with World Class Academy

By Conor Mihell

For years, globetrotting accredited preparatory schools for kayakers World Class Academy (WCA) and New River Academy battled for students like schoolyard rivals. But as of August, the two outdoor educators have come together under the World Class banner, with New River director David Hughes launching a complementary study-and-kayak abroad program for adventurous youth looking to bridge the gap between high school and college. According to WCA headmaster Aaron Rettig, the merger means the pioneers of traveling classrooms for kayakers will join forces to offer students a preparatory school experience like no other.

“We finally acknowledged that it wasn’t smart to be competing,” says Rettig, who was a part of WCA’s first graduating class in 2002. “What’s transpired is really cool. We’ve put aside old stuff and focused on our similarities to move forward under the same umbrella.”

For its part, Washington state-based WCA offers high school studies for skilled teenage whitewater kayakers, with study and boating semesters in places like New Zealand, Chile, and Zambia. Each semester pairs five to six certified teachers and kayakers with 12 to 15 students. The program follows a typical high school curriculum, but with ample time set aside for kayaking and cultural experiences. “We have three pillars: academics, athletics, and character,” says Adam Elliott, the school’s outreach coordinator. “Academic rigor and athletics build character. Traveling around the world and experiencing different cultures in a very immersive way is a huge part of building social and environmental awareness.”

This year, while Hughes launches a new study abroad gap year program in Chile, WCA has embarked a two-part semester that started in British Columbia in mid-August, including whitewater sessions on the notorious Skookumchuck tidal rapids. After a weeklong fall break, the school recently traveled to Nepal, where an 11-day expedition on the Karnali River will highlight the semester, exposing students to the social extremes of the developing world, classic whitewater and ultimately showcasing WCA’s roots as an “expeditionary” school, says Rettig. “We’ll be taking our school stuff on the trip and doing our core classes while on the river,” he adds. “It’s a unique experience for students to wake up and do physics and calculus and literature on trip.”

In this age of “nature deficit disorder”—a time when Xbox, text-messaging and television seem to trump the great outdoors—it all adds up to a new generation of elite kayakers, wilderness advocates and socially aware citizens. “Academics have always been our prime focus, but we also provide perspective,” says Rettig. “Right now in the world there’s a feeling that a lot of things are going bad … this has been a fairly common theme through history. It can cause students to shut down. We show young people an alternative way of doing things that empowers them to be global citizens and participants, to rethink what it means to learn. Through a combination of experiences, we are achieving our goals.”

Check out some video from World Class Academy’s fall 2011 semester. Click HERE to see more.

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