Students at the Academy of Global Exploration divide their time between a domestic location and a foreign country, doing home stays and trying out activities such as camping, rock climbing and skiing while attending regular academic classes

When Greg Guevara first started teaching middle and high school social studies, he struggled to get to know and inspire all 210 of his students every semester. So when he had the opportunity to lead a school that combined small classes with international travel and outdoor adventure, he jumped at the opportunity.

In 2002, he took a job teaching at a Vermont school that offered a semester of adventure travel, then accepted the director's position on the condition that the school move to Ashland. It reopened as the Academy of Global Exploration in 2005 and has been preparing students for college through its innovative curriculum ever since.

Every semester, students divide their time between a domestic location and a foreign country, doing home stays and trying out activities such as camping, rock climbing and skiing while attending regular academic classes. Students become real global citizens who have visited the places they learn about in textbooks while developing skills that are hard to teach in a traditional classroom, Guevara said.

"I found it was so difficult to teach the intangible skills like leadership and teamwork, self-esteem building and communication skills," he said. "All of those really come naturally when you're rock climbing and your roommate is on the other end of the rope and it's up to you to talk to them to complete the climb safely ... self-esteem just blossoms."

The school limits each session to 12 students, who stay between one semester and two years. All students take a cultural studies class together, studying the country they are visiting, but most classes are very individualized, between one and four students. Teachers work closely with students' home high schools to offer a seamless curriculum.

Although the school has graduated seniors, no student has spent all four years of high school with the academy.

"We actually sort of encourage students to not think of AGE as a four-year option," he said. "If you love it, come for two years or maybe three, but we definitely realize there are things that we don't offer that are also important."

For Tom Wiley, attending the academy was the solution to a feeling that he had already experienced everything a traditional high school had to offer. He was tired of large classes that didn't seem to meet his needs, so he decided to attend AGE during his senior year.

"I feel that the time that I spent at AGE was the period that I grew the most as a person," he said. "I mean, I learned things in high school, but I would say that that year at AGE I learned the most about myself, about the world, about living with people who I have no relation and nothing in common with."

While his former classmates at South Medford High School were goofing off during school, he was scaling cliffs in South Africa, learning about the physics of rock climbing and the history of the people who lived in the nearby villages, he said.

The travel wasn't so much about seeing new things as it was a chance to experience a completely different way of life with plenty of interaction with his teachers to process everything, he said.

"I honestly feel that if all secondary schools in the states had that student-teacher ratio and that much interest and appreciation for the students, we would be hands down the most educated country in the world," he said.

Wiley made it back to Medford in time to attend prom and graduate with his class, but he felt he had matured beyond his peers, he said. After graduation, he decided to take a year off to reflect on his experiences and is now applying to Southern Oregon University to study economics and engineering, skills he can use to help the developing world.

Students from both Ashland and Medford have attended the school, but most of the recruits come from around the country, drawing heavily from Colorado and New England, Guevara said.

Emily McCulliss of Denver attended the school for two years, the perfect alternative to the high school of 4,000 students she would have attended at home, her mother, Debbie McCulliss said.

"This school provided so much for my daughter from a sense of belonging, her self-confidence, self-respect, it was just amazing," she said. "To see that girl today is just like 'Wow,' and I really believe that the Academy of Global Exploration helped Emily find a sense of herself and everything else kind of came along with it."

She was more than prepared for college, her mother said, and is now studying marine biology at the University of Oregon after being introduced to the subject on a Grecian island.

The school has a price tag of $17,400 per semester or $32, 845 per year, but the cost was absolutely worth it, McCullis said.

"I would never do anything different for her," she said. "It was so perfect."

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.