A Publication of the Character Education Partnership

Eileen Dachnowicz

Nov 01 2012


“Engaging the Disengaged through 8+5=10” (page 11)

Eagle Rock School (grades 9-12) and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado, has embarked on the daunting mission of engaging troubled teens 15-17 years of age who have dropped out of school elsewhere. The brainchild of the American Honda Motor Company, its benefactor, this amazing school is a year-round, residential, and full-scholarship school that guides 96 teenagers to develop emotionally and personally while mastering academic skills. Bucking all odds, Eagle Rock has a proud record of having over 80 percent of its students eventually obtain high school diplomas.
“It is the grist of human interaction that is our curriculum,” says head of school Robert Burkhardt, who points out “the inherent challenge in trying to create community” with students who have a track record of clashing with it. Associate director of professional development Dan Condon adds, “A lot of these kids were in gangs. They don’t have the tools to pick themselves up.”

The Eagle Rock staff (the professional development center and the school exist side by side on the campus) has thought long and hard about how to create that needed sense of community. Learning to “live in respectful harmony with others” is the first commitment of the school’s credo, captured in its unusual slogan, 8+5=10, which signifies 8 themes, 5 expectations, and 10 commitments. With Rocky Mountain National Park as a backdrop, students first learn to “live in respectful harmony with others” through a 25-day wilderness therapy trip. Living, working together, and sharing feelings in 25 alpine-inspired cottages gradually creates a strong bond with their peers and house parents.
Beth Ellis, instructional specialist and house parent, adds, “The strength of our house culture lies in how we strive to live our stated values: unity and family. We use these values to help students to create relationships, work through conflicts, and find common ground with [one another] as well as with adults.”

The family bonding, the sense of community that Ellis describes at Eagle Rock, is happening at all the other 23 schools and on district honored this year as National Schools of Character. Daily, their staff toil unselfishly to foster in all children the feeling that they are treasured and belong to a caring school family. Granted, Blessed Sacrament School in Utah looks quite different from Eagle Rock, but the appreciation uttered by Blessed Sacrament parent Napoli applies equally to the magic occurring at Estes Park: “Every child is welcomed and loved as a member of the family. Every child feels respected and cared for.”

“Making Learning Relevant” (page 35-36)

Moral action is also at the heart of the Eagle Rock School (grades 9-12) and Professional Development Center, in Estes Park, Colorado, which aims to engage troubled teens 15-17 years of age who have dropped out of schools elsewhere. Financed by the American Honda Motor Company, the school uses many innovative approaches to woo its student body. There, at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park, some 96 students live together and learn together in a unique educational experience that aims to change their lives.
Interestingly, the term “trimester” replaces the traditional label of freshman, sophomore, etc.; students may apply for graduation when they feel they have mastered the required curriculum. All students must demonstrate competencies in academic areas, measured by rubrics, performance assessments, and presentations. Likewise, the students grow through many service learning opportunities, one of which is an Independent Service Project.

Associate director of professional development Dan Condon points out that all activities are designed to reinforce the school’s triple emphasis on service to others, environmental stewardship, and participation as an engaged global citizen. He adds that in order to reach students turned off by the usual school experiences, the staff frequently explains the purpose of each activity: “If we can’t explain what we are doing in terms of our values, we shouldn’t be doing it.”

Jeremy, a student who has completed his first trimester, says that the difference between Eagle Rock and his old high school is that “you actually have to work here. There is a lot responsibility. I like it when people are hard on me.” Sonny, another first-trimester student, adds, “They take a lot of time one-on-one to help you.” Another student, Jillian, says, “You build actual relationships with teachers. If you are struggling, it is probably because you are uncomfortable asking a question.”

Instruction has come a long way from the days when pupils, neatly seated in rows, listened obediently to the all-knowing instructor. Whether it is the little ones in suburban Lawrenceville or the bigger ones in the rugged Rockies, learning styles, real-life experiences, student empowerment, and project-based learning are now taking center stage.

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