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School offers a global education

Tom Wiley expected to see misery in South Africa's townships, the shanty towns where blacks were forced to live during the apartheid era, and where many remain.

Wiley, a 17-year-old student at Ashland's Academy for Global Exploration, had read about South Africa's history, politics and culture, including the legalized racial segregation that existed between 1948 and 1994, before traveling there last September.

"I didn't think people in the townships would be as happy as they were," said Wiley, a Medford resident. "I didn't think workers at vineyards making $2 an hour would be waving and whistling at us. It was so different than I expected it to be. I took away from it a wisdom to wait to make a judgment about other countries."

Two years after the Academy for Global Exploration opened, the traveling boarding school for grades 9 through 12 continues to attract a handful of students from all over the nation who want an alternative to traditional high schools.

Students and their teachers travel for about six months of the school year. Each semester brings a new destination.

The three pupils enrolled this semester recently returned from South Africa. Next semester, students will go to Japan.

While abroad, students live with native hosts. They often interview local people for research projects and explore nature through rock climbing, snowboarding and other outdoor activities.

They continue to attend classes on the road, studying a curriculum aligned with Oregon's content standards.

"In my public high school I didn't really feel challenged enough," said Valerie Woodhouse, 17, from Atglen, Pa. "I was getting bored, and I really wanted to go to Africa. Here you can definitely go at your own pace and follow up on what interests you."

Wiley left South Medford High School to attend the academy for similar reasons.

"I love spending time in the outdoors," Wiley said. "That aspect of the school appealed to me."

A member of the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools, the college-preparatory school has a cap of 10 pupils. This semester, the school had three students and three teachers, but it has enrolled as many as eight.

Tuition runs $27,000 per year, so some students may stay at the academy for only one semester. So far, no one has chosen to attend all four years of high school, although the academy has high graduation standards: 25 credits.

Greg Guevara, who established the school in Oregon as an offshoot of a school that closed in Vermont about four years ago, said he asks students before each journey to make predictions about what they expect the country to be like.

"We don't go for two weeks like a tourist; we go for two months to try to assimilate ourselves with the culture," Guevara said. "After we come back we talk about whether our predictions were correct and what we can learn from their culture."

The teachers and students often cook for themselves while traveling and sample local foods. In South Africa, they tried scrambling an ostrich egg the size of a football. Guevara had to drill a hole in the shell with a rock and a knife before the students poured the egg out into a frying pan.

"I had a spoonful, and I was done," said Carter Haum, a 16-year-old student from Asheville, N.C. "When I think about how it smelled, it still makes me sick to my stomach."

The students said they preferred a pizza topped with bananas, ham and onions that they ate on another occasion, and braai, a style of meat barbecued over wood coals.

Students write a research paper about a topic related to the country. Woodhouse, the student from Pennsylvania, chose to write about the AIDS epidemic and interviewed an AIDS nurse in South Africa.

"A lot of people there just don't want to talk about AIDS," she said. "There's such a stigma attached to it some people don't even get tested and that increases the spread of the disease."

Students said they saw monkeys perched on fences and zebras and baboons meandering around the countryside in some parts of South Africa.

"We have fun all the time," Woodhouse said. "It's never boring."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

Tom Wiley, 17, rides an ostrich in South Africa. Wiley is a senior enrolled at Ashland’s Academy for Global Exploration. - Greg Guevara