River’s Edge Academy: Big dreams on the big river and some fast paddling ahead


The Rivers Edge Academy plans to open this fall near the Mississippi River on St. Paul’s West Side, with a river-themed curriculum that focuses on environmental topics and service-based learning.

Students would be able to do more hands-on work than they would in a regular public school classroom, said Dawn Clawson, the school’s planning director and former biology teacher at St. Paul Central High. “They will not be sitting in a desk listening to the teacher.”

The school will mesh an Expeditionary Learning Schools Outward Bound curriculum with the state’s educational standards, she said. Examples of hands-on learning could include student work installing a rain garden at the school or helping with native plantings, which would tie into plant biology and ecology. River’s Edge is a free public charter school, sponsored by Sandstone, Minn.-based Audubon Center of the North Woods. The Audubon Center provides oversight and advice, but not funding.

River’s Edge Academy’s 10-member board has identified a potential building to rent but a decision is not expected until March at the soonest. Board members include Chair Ken Hanson, St. Paul Central High’s former assistant principal, now retired, Vice Chair Richard Easton who has property management background, Cathy Geist, who teaches environmental science at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Leigh Currie, an environmental attorney and Katy McCormick Pearson, a former special education teacher and Outward Bound instructor.

The school is the brainchild of Clawson and Hanson. As Clawson tells it, River’s Edge is the confluence of her interest in Small Learning Communities and Hanson’s experience with discipline problems.

Former St. Paul Schools Superintendent Pat Harvey promoted the idea of High School Small Learning Communities, so students could focus on their particular interests, such as engineering or arts, and develop more personal relationships with peers and teachers that shared that interest. Clawson co-chaired Central High’s Small Learning Community Committee and got very interested in the research, she said. Meanwhile, students were showing up in Hanson’s office, “who were not bad kids, but they just couldn’t sit still in class,” she said.

Clawson and Hanson collaborated on the idea of a small, hands-on, river-themed school and even had Harvey’s support, she said. When Harvey left the district, the idea floundered. St. Paul schools faced budget shortfalls and new leadership couldn’t justify investing in a new program when the whole district was in need, Clawson recalled.

Clawson retired from St. Paul Public Schools in 2006 to pursue the charter school idea. The school hopes to start with 120 students in grades 9 and 10, and add a grade level each of the next two years, she said.

The school received a $180,000 federal planning grant and $10,000 from the Walton Family Foundation for start up, Clawson said. It plans for a $1 million-plus operating budget, a combination of state per pupil aid and charter school lease aid, based on a 120-student enrollment.

For the most part, charter schools are funded like school districts, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. They receive the basic revenue ($5,124 per weighted pupil unit for next year) and additional aid that public schools get for students with limited English proficiency and compensatory aid for low-income students.

With seven months to go before the doors open, the River’s Edge Academy’s leaders have their work cut out to recruit students, both to fulfill the school’s dream and to have the needed revenue. During a recent board meeting, board members wrestled with issues large and small as the box of Cheez-Its made its way around the table. They discussed lease negotiation strategies and also approved bills for t-shirts and the school logo. There was some concern about moving on a building.

As of Feb. 7, three students had signed up for the Academy. “We found it difficult to seriously market the school when we don’t have a location,” Clawson said in an interview. “Parents want to know where their students are going to be.”

River’s Edge Academy: http://www.riversedgeacademy.org/

Expeditionary Learning Schools Outward Bound: http://www.elschools.org/