Re-pitching Rainshadow

New interdisciplinary charter school backers are back with a revised plan

Stephen Lafer, associate professor of secondary education at the University of Nevada, Reno, has seen interdisciplinary education work.

Stephen Lafer, associate professor of secondary education at the University of Nevada, Reno, has seen interdisciplinary education work.

Photo By Deidre Pike

Students are faced with a problem. Visiting and studying the Truckee River under the guidance of members of the Nevada Conservation Corps, they observe damage to the river’s ecosytem. Solving the problem involves learning about the resources a river offers and about riparian restoration—how a river habitat can be improved.

“Students may not have the knowledge of biology and math that they need, so the project will be the motivation to going out and learning what’s needed,” says Stephen Lafer, associate professor of secondary education at the University of Nevada, Reno. “That seems to me to be a more naturalistic sense of learning. People learn things not just to satisfy some master. There are either things in the world that make them curious, or that they need to act upon.”

Lafer and others, including Stephen Tchudi, chairman of UNR’s English Department, set out this year to start a high school that would put interdisciplinary educational philosophies into practice. The result was the Rainshadow Community Charter High School. Before the school’s charter was rejected by the Washoe County School Board in April, it had been due to open in the fall.

At Rainshadow, at-risk students would learn from guest speakers such as local entrepreneurs and university professors. They’d go on many field trips. One of their first learning activities would be to adopt a “quality-of-life” indicator and monitor it in the Truckee Meadows.

“The idea is to get kids out of the school and into the world to get things done that are worth doing,” Lafer says.

But these experienced educators faced a problem.

Though Rainshadow had already been given a go-ahead by the Nevada Board of Education and had even received a $100,000 grant to get the school off the ground, the Washoe County School Board didn’t cotton to the instructional concept of eschewing textbooks in favor of real-life experiences. The district’s own curriculum developers complained that Rainshadow planners hadn’t outlined just how they’d meet state standards.

In late April, the school board denied the application for Rainshadow, though its founding committee’s members include such local leaders as the Western Region Wildlife Education coordinator, the program director for the Nevada Conservation Corps and the principal of the I Can Do Anything Charter School—not to mention Lafer and Tchudi, who literally co-wrote the book, The Interdisciplinary Teacher’s Handbook, on this mode of instruction.

That same day, the school board approved the charter for the new Academy for Career Education, a school designed to allow students to get a high school diploma while learning a trade, like hanging dry wall, roofing houses and fixing pipes. The ACE board of directors is made up of about 17 members of the construction industry, an accountant and two educators.

Lafer says he felt a shift in the tone of board members while dealing with the applications for both schools.

“When [ACE] came before the board, [the tone] was extremely friendly,” Lafer says. “As if [the board were] already sold. [ACE] was praised up and down for the quality of the proposal and the work they had done with the school district. It was a love fest. We got up there, and it wasn’t quite a love fest.”

Why the difference? For starters, ideas that come down from the university level might be perceived as critical, and new concepts may threaten the status quo or frighten special interests. Even individuals who have the students’ best interests in mind can be distrustful.

One school board member actually called the school “too innovative,” Lafer says.

Making Rainshadow sound like it was trying somehow to operate outside Nevada’s charter school law was the Reno Gazette-Journal. An editorial headlined “Board must be sure charter schools are following the law” backed the school board’s decision, saying that Rainshadow had seemingly “good” ideas but no action plan.

The criticism was hardly fair.

“The school has a structure, but the structure is flexible,” Lafer says. “The school has to go with [the interest] of the kids, in a sense. The curriculum will change its focus to accommodate their interest.”

So where exactly did the notion to start such a school as Rainshadow come from? After all, charter schools are a kind of compromise for the school voucher crowd, and educators like Tchudi and Lafer seem like they’d be on the other end of the ideological spectrum. And in fact, as a teacher of public school teachers, Lafer says the motivation behind charter schools is troubling.

“You shouldn’t have to create schools outside of school systems,” he says. “It’s the same with vouchers. Vouchers are to get kids out of bad schools and into good schools. A better solution would be to get rid of bad schools so that nobody has to get out of one. …Voucher law and charter schools are a terrible admission that, for some reason, it is not possible to run school systems where all schools are able to provide all kids with a sound education.”

Starting a charter school that revolutionizes this system could provide a model that public schools might eventually consider following.

UNR English Chairman Tchudi’s resume includes teaching in the Chicago public school system, training teachers in Lansing, Mich., and working with public schools internationally in British Columbia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Djakarta, Germany and Russia. Locally, he’s been involved with Washoe High and O’Brien Middle School. He’s researched and written boatloads of material on education. He thinks that Reno needs an alternative like Rainshadow.

“Although I’ve spent 38—count ’em—years in public education and am committed to the concept and the practice, it seems to me that the public schools have missed many opportunities for productive reform in the past quarter of a century,” he says. “Under pressure from legislators and taxpayers for ‘accountability,’ they’ve adopted a narrow, traditional, examination-driven route to reform.”

Tchudi says the bulk of education research comes out in favor of thematic, interdisciplinary learning. But these findings have been ignored.

“Instead, the public schools have doggedly gone back to the traditional division of school into math/science/English/history,” Tchudi says. “These subjects are important, but there is no reason to believe that isolating them in courses, each with its own fat, overpriced textbook, is the best way to introduce young learners to important ideas.”

After its proposal was rejected, the Rainshadow committee was given a month to reapply. The 80-page revised application features concrete material like sample thematic outlines. It restates Nevada’s core curriculum demands and give examples of how these subjects might be addressed—without textbooks—in interdisciplinary fashion. Lists of source materials include such diverse writings as Arthur C. Clarke’s Greetings to Carbon-Based Bipeds and reports from the U.S. surgeon general. Also, the application states that copies of the school district’s approved textbooks will be kept on hand to use as references for Rainshadow’s teachers.

The revised proposal was given to the board this week. Board members will evaluate the new material and reconsider the charter, though the school now won’t be able to start up until the fall of 2003.

Tchudi and Lafer are hopeful.

“We are convinced that building factory-sized high schools is the wrong way to build a learning community,” Tchudi says. “We know from Washoe High, ICDA and other alternative schools that you can economically run schools that are as small as a single classroom. Such schools … have few discipline problems and [pay] enormous attention to student needs.”

The educators could appeal to the state to get a charter for the school. But Tchudi says he’d rather work with the approval of the local school district. It’s important that the school be considered as a possible model for future public school needs.

“I think Rainshadow, when authorized, will provide an exciting alternative form of high school education for at-risk kids, but a school that is within the public schools, contributing to that system—not attempting to compete with it," Tchudi says. "We wish that the school district could see that we are friends."