The Alzar School 

Teaching reading, writing and rafting

Kristin and Sean Bierle may not look like sherpas, but they're leading a whole new generation into unfamiliar territory.

photo by Patrick Sweeney

Kristin and Sean Bierle may not look like sherpas, but they're leading a whole new generation into unfamiliar territory.

To learn more about the history and future of the Alzar School, as well as scholarships and tuition options, visit

The Spanish word "alzar" means "to take flight, to rise, to hoist." It's a fitting name for the Alzar School, Sean and Kristin Bierle's Boise-based high school where kayaking Chilean rivers, paddling canoes in North Carolina and backcountry camping in Idaho go hand in hand with math, history and science lessons.

The Bierles, who started the Alzar School in 2004 as the Alzar Youth Adventures, believe adventure-based learning can help high school students learn leadership, self-confidence, a love for the outdoors and an appreciation for different cultures all while a traditional high school curriculum is fulfilled.

It began with the Bierles' idea to blend their beloved outdoor life with their training in education. Recruiting fellow educators and students from around the country, Alzar School began as an outward-bound program in which students earned a few high school or college credits while taking short-term expeditions to run the Chilean Rio Teno, or participate in Boise State's White Water Immersion and Leadership Development, or to deliver school supplies to the remote Mexican Village of Xopilapa.

Today, Alzar is still a school without a building, but by 2012 the Bierles hope to house Alzar School permanently in the Long Valley area and to activate the school's full accreditation.

Beginning in the fall of 2012, students will attend the Alzar School for full-time semesters, enrolling in traditional coursework and blending intensive classroom studies with an equally intensive dose of the great outdoors, both here in Idaho and on international expeditions.

Although the programs can be expensive, they are not only for children of wealthy families.

"We work hard to subsidize the cost of our programs through private donations and grants, and have some financial assistance and scholarships available. Our summer program costs $2,300, and Chile costs $3,300, not including airfare," said Kristin Bierle, a youthful, athletic woman in her mid-20s.

Bierle, a small, unassuming woman rode a motorcycle 3,600 miles through Mexico in the summer of 2007 scouting potential Alzar School expeditions. She is also a world-class kayaker and a hard-core advocate of paddling rivers, big and small. And as she began to tell the Alzar story, her enthusiasm and acute interests became very clear.

"We started this school with the idea of a powerful connection between the outdoors and youth," Bierle said, stirring a cup of tea. "We wanted to use the outdoors as a hook, a pull, because for Sean and me, that was the case and we wanted others to experience what we loved. Then, as our own educational careers advanced, we kept seeing and understanding a mesh, a way of weaving outdoor adventure and education. We thought it could all be a powerful mix."

She and Sean started the program on the strength and enthusiasm of their own desires, beliefs, histories.

"I grew up with a father who got my siblings and I involved in the more, you might say, nontraditional sports: spelunking, hiking, water sports," Bierle continued. "With our students, I feel we push them just far enough out of their comfort zones--as I was--so that they're introduced to new ways of thinking, new ways of understanding life. And this gives them a perspective, a way to understand how to make decisions on a more mature level."

Bierle knows that kids are often asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" She thinks the better questions are: "What do you want to accomplish?" "What do you want to change in the world around you?" International experiences, like those the Bierles provide, give kids new skills that, combined with a traditional education, will make them active, strong members of their communities.

"I feel like we're giving this to our students," Bierle said. "We're building bridges."

Many of the students who have come out of the Alzar School programs do indeed express this notion of a bridge, of a connection to a larger purpose and a larger understanding of cultures and the natural world.

John Scott, an Alzar alum and now 19-year-old freshman at North Carolina State, spoke to the larger understanding he gained on an expedition on the Cal-Salmon River through a section known as the Gaping Maw.

"I'd been on class-four rivers before," Scott said, "but the Cal-Salmon was massive. And in the midst of it is the 'Gaping Maw,' aptly named with big old rocks that look like teeth and not-so-pleasant hydraulics that can work you like no other. In approaching the Maw, half my mind is saying, humans aren't meant to go down rivers in stupid mango-colored pieces of plastic.

"But after everything, I fought through the Gaping Maw and came out victorious," Scott said. "And for me it was my favorite experience of that trip with Alzar because it tested me as a person and a paddler. I could have spent my summer doing numerous things, but nothing has prepared me for the transition from high school life to college life more than Alzar School."

Lizzy Hester, who traveled with Alzar School on the Rivers of Chile 2010 expedition, completely agreed. Hester is now a Clemson freshman, and she added a cultural spin to the depth of the adventure.

"The most memorable and meaningful day I spent in Chile was definitely at the orphanage we worked with toward the end of our trip," Hester said. "Seeing these children living in poverty, with little hope of their future having any better luck, but still living with such joy, it really blew my mind. These children were living in filth, with nothing, and yet they took care of and understood each other. It touched me to my core. And being able to build them a swing set and an outdoor chalkboard changed my perspective on life from then on."

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