A charter school set to open next fall offers teens a chance to get their elbows dirty and hands wet along the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Paul.

River's Edge Academy will open to about 100 ninth- and 10th-graders this fall, eventually expanding to about 300 students in grades 9-12. It will offer students a chance for "expeditionary learning," infusing a liberal arts curriculum with the environment and themes of the river, said Dawn Clawson, a biology teacher and planning director for the school. Everything from the history of societies along the river to the ecology, commerce and literature of river life will become part of the curriculum, Clawson said.

"Why did people come to the river, why to St. Paul? What did they leave behind?" asked Clawson, a longtime teacher at St. Bernard's High School and St. Paul Central High School who became convinced that some students need a smaller, more hands-on environment in which to succeed.

Charter schools are public schools that are autonomous of traditional school districts and receive funding directly from the state. State law requires charter schools to have a sponsor, and River's Edge is sponsored by the Audubon Center of the North. The school is one of three in the St. Paul area being sponsored by the Audubon Center, said Steve Dess, charter school liaison for the center. And, overall, the center sponsors 14 charter schools that will be operating next fall, including a new environmentally focused elementary school opening in Woodbury.

"We've been helping some charter schools for almost five years now as a sponsor," Dess said.

He said the Audubon Center sees sponsoring schools as a way to address their mission of promoting hands-on learning and encouraging young people to reflect on their place in the world.

"And we're looking for folks who really have the educational experience," Dess said.

Clawson certainly has that. The biology teacher spent 10 years at Central after several years at St. Bernard's. In her time at Central, she saw children achieve great things. But she saw others struggle.

"I realized there were many students who just didn't fit the traditional model. I was looking for ways to do something a little different with my teaching," she said.

A small school, providing hands-on experiences with the river as a core theme, made sense for St. Paul, she said.

Jon Kerr agrees. The longtime West Side resident, owner of the former Old Man River Cafe and onetime social studies teacher, liked the idea so much, he's become a member of the River's Edge school board.

"I felt there were a lot of kids who weren't quite fitting in anywhere else," he said. "This is where kids definitely will do a lot of active sorts of learning, projects, getting out of the classroom a fair amount of time."

Kerr said students will do much of their work in teams, as part of crews.

River's Edge, actually, will be the second school to offer a strong environmental and project-based focus beginning in the fall of 2008. Humboldt High School and the attached Humboldt Junior High will also launch a new environmental studies program next school year.

Kerr acknowledged the growing popularity of such programs but noted: "It's a big environment. The more the merrier."

Clawson stressed that while the school has an environmental focus, students there will get a liberal-arts education that prepares them for college and beyond. An advantage of working with the river, she said, will be the school's connection to schools and scientists in other states and countries. Working through the worldwide Global Learning and Observation for the Benefit of the Environment (GLOBE) science and education program, students at River's Edge will be able to participate in scientific research, uploading data they collect for others to analyze.

"Scientists around the world are watching to see changes in the flora and fauna of the river, to see if there are changes because of global warming," Clawson said. "This will be an opportunity for our students to be a part of that."

James Walsh • 651-298-1541