When Gabe Ferdinand first saw the informational videotape about Eagle Rock School two years ago, he couldn’t believe his eyes. “I thought it was hilarious,” he says. “They had all these kids saying, ‘Eagle Rock is such a loving place.’ I was laughing! I thought they had paid these people to get on camera and say these things and go around hugging each other. I thought, I don’t know what world you live in, but that’s not the world I live in.”
His world was far from the mountains of Colorado, where Eagle Rock, a tuition-free boarding school for troubled teens, sits in blissful isolation 8,000 feet above sea level. Gabe, now 18, was living with his mother and little sister in what he calls the “nice” section of Watts, a predominantly African American community in Los Angeles reputed for its gang-related violence. “We were middle class,” he says. “Right in the middle. A nice house, three bedrooms, bathroom, all that nice stuff. The people on my block were respectable. I was the one doing things that were contrary to what I was taught.”
Problems in the Ferdinand household came to a head on Gabe’s 14th birthday, when his parents split up. A squabble over bills escalated into a major verbal battle, which ended when Gabe’s mother collected her daughter, her son, and the birthday cake and headed for the door. From that point on, Gabe’s father distanced himself from the family, and Gabe started hanging out with the Bloods in his neighborhood. He won’t discuss in detail his gang history, but in his application to Eagle Rock, he wrote: “I did everything and almost seen everything. I grew up where lies are sometimes your best friends. I have seen and been through situations that some kids would be shocked to go through.”
Gabe’s anger got him into trouble at Locke High School. No fan of authority figures, he once spat at his 10th grade history teacher, who refrained from reporting the incident. But the very next day, Gabe threw a textbook at the teacher, missing his head by inches. This time, Gabe was sent to the principal, who suspended him for a week. Other incidents followed, including one in which Gabe pushed a teacher as he was leaving her classroom. She claimed Gabe had hit her, and once again, he was given the boot, this time for a month. “I just had this rage inside of me,” he says.
At one point, Gabe’s mother, Edna, got so fed up with her son’s behavior that she kicked him out of the house. But when Gabe tried to move in with his father, “it was like warfare,” he recalls. Meanwhile, Edna had heard from a friend about Eagle Rock.
Founded by Honda, the car company, in 1993 and located in Estes Park, Colorado, a two-hour drive northwest of Denver, the school serves about 90 students, who come from all over the country (though half are from Colorado). Most have either dropped out or been kicked out of their regular schools, and many have substance-abuse problems. Some come from dysfunctional families. It is a place where students can get a fresh start.
Edna called the school and asked for information. When the videotape arrived, she urged Gabe to view it. Despite his lukewarm reaction, Gabe agreed to travel with his mother to Colorado to look the place over. “I was open-minded,” he says. He was 16 years old and, for all his anger, looking for a way out of the hole he had dug for himself.
“The reason why I would like you to consider me is because I know I need to change, and I have seen a better way since I have been to Eagle Rock,” Gabe wrote in a letter to L’Tanya Perkins, the school’s admissions director, after his visit. “I also believe that I can change and move in a different direction. I also believe that Eagle Rock is the place for me.”
To Philbert Smith, Eagle Rock’s dean of students, Gabe wrote: “I would really like to come. Philbert, to tell you the truth, I promised God that if he let me come I would not let him down. I am also going to make some promises to you. I promise that if you let me come, I will do my best, and I won’t let you down. My word is my bond. I have also prayed about it and wrote my promise down on paper and put it in the prayer box [at church].”
In Gabe’s file at Eagle Rock is this note, written by Smith after Gabe’s admission interview: “Gabriel. INVITE. Wants to come. Feels he could & wants to handle it. I like.”
To call Eagle Rock a school doesn’t do the place justice. From the start, Honda wanted it to be more of a community than an institution, and that’s exactly how it feels. Students, an equal number of males and females ranging from ages 15 to 21, sleep in bunkhouses with teachers as house parents, and everybody eats meals together in the dining hall. The day begins with morning exercises, followed by the 8 o’clock “gathering,” a kind of group-encounter session during which students, teachers, and administrators are encouraged to express their feelings. Spiritual development is emphasized as much as academic growth, and students must follow moral and ethical guidelines. There are rules, to be sure—no drugs, no alcohol, no sex, no violence—but Eagle Rock is not a boot camp, nor is it one of the increasingly popular “wilderness-therapy” schools, where wayward students are subjected to rigorous “tough love” survival courses.
In fact, there are just a handful of schools around the country that resemble Eagle Rock. One is the Milton Hershey School, a tuition-free private boarding school in Pennsylvania founded as an orphanage in 1909 by the chocolate manufacturer Milton Hershey and his wife, Catherine. Like Hershey, Eagle Rock was established by a successful corporation looking to address a social need. In 1989, two Honda executives, Tom Dean and Mak Itabashi, were asked by their corporate bosses to create a philanthropic endeavor that would, in Dean’s words, “give something back to society.”
“We concluded that education was where we ought to be putting our efforts,” says Dean, an educator who had previously developed Honda’s employee training programs. He and Itabashi hatched a plan for a tuition-free boarding school that would serve low-income students who were struggling to succeed in conventional schools. Honda gave the project the go-ahead, and Dean was named executive director of the nonprofit American Honda Education Corporation, created solely for the purpose of funding and administering the school.
Here’s how Dean envisioned Eagle Rock in an early written proposal: “The living environment will be very different from most of the students’ previous experiences. Students will be away from the negative influences which may have been present. The atmosphere at the school will be warm, friendly, and nonthreatening. The location and design of the school facilities are important in creating this atmosphere.”
To reach Eagle Rock School, you must first drive to Estes Park, a small resort town located on the eastern border of Rocky Mountain National Park. From the middle of town, you drive about six miles to a gated entrance, then another mile or so on a winding road to a cluster of greenish, shingle-style buildings with peaked roofs. Eagle Rock’s “campus” comprises 640 isolated acres of pine and aspen trees, lush meadows, and granite-covered crags. The mountain setting is breathtaking.
I visited the school for several days in early December, near the end of “ER 22,” the school’s 22nd trimester since it first opened. (Students are identified by their ER numbers, not as freshmen, sophomores, juniors, or seniors.) I arrived a little before 8 a.m. on a Monday. Just off the dining hall, in a high-ceilinged room with a sunken floor and an enormous stone fireplace, the gathering was about to get under way. Students—dressed in jeans, pile jackets, and knit ski caps—filed in and sat on large pillows on the floor. Outside the picture windows, a light snow was falling. Staff members, including Eagle Rock’s tireless director, Robert Burkhardt, were there, too. Ray Benally, a Navajo student from Arizona with long, black hair tied back in a ponytail, was sitting on the hearth, preparing to lead the gathering. At 8, he rang a small bell and bowed his head in silence, and everyone else followed suit for about 30 seconds.
“Good morning, everyone,” Ray said. In a barely audible voice, he told the students and faculty members about a sweat lodge at Eagle Rock that he’d helped build as a gift to the school, from which he’d soon be graduating. “It’s a sacred place,” he said, “where people can grow spiritually.” He answered a few questions and then opened the floor up to announcements. Then someone put on a scratchy recording of the gospel song “Hold On,” and everyone joined in, singing, “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!”
After the gathering was over, the students dispersed and headed off to their classes. I tagged along with Burkhardt and his golden retriever, Gussie, to the music building, designed to look like a one-room schoolhouse, where he and about 20 students practiced singing Christmas carols under the guidance of the choir teacher.
At 60, Burkhardt is a tall, thin, charismatic man with close-set eyes and thinning brown hair. He typically wears blue jeans, hiking boots, and a gray Eagle Rock sweatshirt that says, “All Who Dare,” the school’s motto. He lives in a house on campus with his wife and their two elementary school-age children. Aside from singing in the choir, Burkhardt teaches and takes students on field trips to Boulder and Denver. (Staff members at Eagle Rock wear many hats.) This trimester, he is teaching a course on Homer’s The Odyssey, for which his students, including Gabe Ferdinand, have written their own theatrical version of the story, a satire titled The Odd We See. They will perform the play for the entire school before the end of the year.
Though most students revere Burkhardt, he can be a tough disciplinarian when he has to. But, overall, he leads by example, not raw authority. “When I look at Robert,” Gabe told me, “I think, That’s what a man is supposed to be.”
Later that day, I was sitting with Burkhardt in his office—or rather, his book-filled corner of the school’s main office—when Sandy Rivera, an 18-year-old student from Pasadena, California, walked by. “Hola, Sandy,” he said. “Come over here and sit on my lap.” She did, and they gave each other a kiss on the cheek. “Now, this is something you can’t do in a public school,” Burkhardt told me. “I’d be arrested! But one of the things you’ll see around here is that people hug each other all the time. And you know what? Kids need to be touched, and they need to be hugged.”
Burkhardt seems perfectly suited to run a school like Eagle Rock, with its touchy-feely, progressive approach to education. He joined the Peace Corps in 1962, just after graduating from Princeton University. Then he taught high school for a while, went to graduate school, and, in 1970, moved to San Francisco and opened the Symbas Experimental School for, in his words, “dropouts, runaways, and incorrigibles.” One of a number of so-called “free schools” that blossomed in the late ’60s and early ’70s and were based on the notion that students should be free to pursue their own interests, Symbas lasted for six years. “Which is surprising,” Burkhardt said, “because most free schools lasted about 18 months. People with high passion and good intentions and no staying power would start them, and then about 10 months later they’d be worn out.”
Next came a three-year stint as a plumber, followed by several years working as a juggler, trumpet player, and roustabout in the Pickle Family Circus. “It was more of a collective than anything else,” Burkhardt said, “which is the kind of politics I like. We would go to some small town like Bend, Oregon, set up shop, and raise money for child-care centers, homeless shelters, food banks, and such.”
Burkhardt eventually returned to California, where, after years of working with the California Conservation Corps, he was asked by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein to start up a similar service-aid group in San Francisco. But in 1990, he jumped at the chance to help get Eagle Rock off the ground. “This place is sort of Symbas with a budget,” he explained.
Indeed, some elements common to free schools—an emphasis on community, a quasi-democratic governing structure, the notion that learning doesn’t just take place in the classroom—were incorporated into Eagle Rock’s design. Students work with faculty members to create individualized learning plans, and to graduate they must demonstrate proficiency in a number of “competencies,” not classes, which are tied to Colorado’s content standards. Because most classes are interdisciplinary, students may earn, in any one course, credit in a number of subject areas. In Burkhardt’s Odyssey class, for example, those areas include literature, writing, public performance, American government, geography, and world history.
There are no letter grades and few tests at Eagle Rock, so student assessment is based largely on portfolios, writing projects, and oral presentations. At the end of each trimester, a student must deliver a written and oral “presentation of learning” before a panel of faculty members and visiting educators.
This kind of in-depth approach demands a great deal of time, commitment, and flexibility from Eagle Rock’s 15 teachers, some of whom live on campus. History teacher James Sherman taught classes at Colorado State University before arriving at Eagle Rock four years ago. “We’ve got kids from all over the nation,” he told me, “from every circumstance you could imagine. In my World War II class, for example, some of them are well aware of the main events and the important individuals, but there are others who have no idea that the Holocaust took place, or who have never heard the name Adolf Hitler before. So you have to create a class that is going to be meaningful for all of these students. And that’s a real challenge here.”
Another important aspect of Eagle Rock is its professional development center. Every year, 1,500 educators descend on the school to study its program and return home with a new idea or two. What sets Eagle Rock apart, however, is not any one element but rather the sum of its parts: the isolated setting, the free tuition, the smallness of the place, the emphasis on community building and personal growth. What, I wondered, could a principal from a typical high school learn from a visit?
“I would argue,” Burkhardt said, “that you can take a number of things from here and put them in place in your classroom, or your building, or your district. For instance, take your 2,000-student high school and divide it into 10 families of 200 or 20 families of 100. I would argue that whether it’s a residential school in an isolated setting or a public, nonresidential school in an urban setting, you can build culture and community. It’s a question of what your priorities are.”
He added: “I think that Eagle Rock represents the art of the possible.”
In the fall of 1995, Doug Rutherford and his son, Matt, who was 14 at the time, visited Eagle Rock while on their way to the Grand Canyon. Doug fell in love with the place, but Matt was unimpressed. “Dad, don’t make me come to this school,” he wrote in a note that he left under the windshield wiper of his father’s car. “I’ll do anything you say. Love, Matt.”
Back home in Kent, Ohio, the Rutherfords, Doug and Cathy, had struggled for years to find a place where their son could thrive. Doug, who happened to be visiting Eagle Rock while I was there in December, told me: “Matt started having trouble in the 1st grade. Noticeable problems. He was clinically diagnosed as ADHD, and he started taking Ritalin when he was 8 or 9.” Matt was also borderline dyslexic, and he suffered from periodic bouts of depression. When he was 10, he began drinking and smoking pot. At 13, he told his mother that he “didn’t want to hide it anymore” and confessed about his drinking and drug taking; two weeks later, he entered a rehab program. He was the youngest participant.
Though he’s obviously bright, Matt struggled in school. For two years, he attended a private school in Cleveland for students with learning disabilities. That helped, but the school only went up through 6th grade, so the Rutherfords moved Matt back to a public school. They fought with administrators until the district agreed to provide their son with an aide who helped Matt take notes in class and organize his work. Nonetheless, Matt floundered, and his life became, according to his father, “an ever-increasing series of detentions, suspensions, and no-shows. I was beginning to know the local police juvenile division on a first-name basis.”
When a family friend who knew about Eagle Rock mentioned the school, the Rutherfords thought it sounded ideal. And despite Matt’s initial impression, he and his parents sent in an application. However, they were told that Matt, at 14, was too young; with rare exceptions, Eagle Rock students must be at least 15.
A year later, Matt’s sister, Rachel, was elated to learn that she had won a scholarship to attend the College of Wooster. That evening, Matt, feeling sorry for himself, got drunk and broke into a neighbor’s house in search of more liquor. He was arrested and eventually served 17 days in a juvenile detention center. While on probation, Matt participated in a 26-day Outward Bound program for at-risk youth. “He flourished,” Doug told me. “The highly structured environment was just what he needed.” Eagle Rock, whose program includes a three-week Outward Bound-type wilderness experience, as well as a 24-7 approach to education, suddenly looked even more appealing. Matt decided to reapply.
The Eagle Rock admissions process is competitive, but not in the usual ways. While the administration looks at school records, there are no entrance examinations. More important are strong indications that applicants are willing to change their behavior. Each applicant must write a 100-word essay describing why he or she wants to be an Eagle Rock student, and parents (or adult “sponsors”) must also write essays. Sometimes first-time applicants are rejected—administrators may sense they’re not up to the challenge—then admitted on the second or third try. Despite its rigorous selection process, Eagle Rock makes no promises that a student will succeed. According to one informational brochure, Eagle Rock “cannot, and does not, guarantee or warrant any particular result or outcome for any particular student.”
When Matt reapplied in 1996, he didn’t get in. And although he was admitted to Eagle Rock on his third try the following year, he was sent home just three weeks into his first trimester. “I had this idea,” Matt told me, “that you could be up here and smoke bud once in a while—like, walk out in the woods and get high—and it wouldn’t matter. I was wrong about that, and I got caught, so they kicked me out.”
Back in Ohio, Matt began what he calls an “insane” period of stealing cars, selling and using drugs, and drinking. He was arrested again, this time for possession of marijuana, for which he served two months in a detention center. The stint included 15 days “solo”—that is, in a single cell with no windows and no contact with other juveniles.
Eagle Rock offers students who are kicked out a second chance, provided they write a letter to students and staff members explaining what they did and why they should be allowed back. The letter is then read out loud at a morning gathering. (“About half of our graduates,” Burkhardt told me, “are second-chancers. They realize what they threw away. They fight their way back in, and then they take it more seriously.”) Matt, who ended up being readmitted, was sent home again when another student accidentally sliced the tip of Matt’s finger with an ax while chopping wood. But he was assured he could return the following trimester.
In September 1998, three years after he first stepped foot on Eagle Rock’s campus, Matt was finally ready to begin his journey.
Now 19, Matt is an intense, tough-talking student with short red hair on his head and a few stray whiskers on his chin. When I met him, he was dressed in baggy blue jeans and an orange Cleveland Browns T-shirt. At first glance, he struck me as someone not to be messed with. (He told me that back home in Ohio he carried a gun with him all the time.) But after a while, I realized that, in many ways, he’s still just a kid—and, for all his bluster, a sweet kid at that.
Gabe Ferdinand was dressed to the nines. For his end-of-trimester “presentation of learning,” or POL, required of all Eagle Rock students, he had picked out his Sunday best: a black, collarless, four-button jacket; an off-white dress shirt buttoned at the collar; dark blue slacks; and pointy black loafers. He’d topped it all off with a beige fedora, which he removed for his presentation. Tall and handsome, with an easygoing manner and a warm smile, he resembled the comedian Chris Rock.
Gabe’s POL took place in a small classroom packed with about 25 people, including teachers, students, and guests. A panel of five judges, several of whom were visiting educators from other Colorado schools, sat at two long tables in front, ready to assess each presentation. During the POLs, held over a two-day period, students are given about 15 minutes to, according to written instructions, “present evidence of their learning by gathering data from their portfolios and offering documentation of learning through examples of completed projects and products.” The panelists may then ask whatever questions they like before critiquing the presentation.
The primary focus of the exercise is academic growth, though students are expected to talk about personal growth, as well. Still, I was surprised to find that many students barely even mentioned academics, preferring to dwell almost exclusively on how they had battled various personal demons since arriving at Eagle Rock. Even more surprising was that none of the panelists seemed to mind.
For instance, at one POL I attended, a student named Crayton “C.J.” Bush, who announced that he was leaving Eagle Rock at the end of the trimester, spent the entire time talking about his “old self” and his “new self,” and how aikido—his passion—had become a metaphor for his life. (He even did a brief aikido demonstration.) He mentioned academics only once, when he said, “I’ve taken a lot of classes, and I’ve learned a lot.” Yet none of the panelists called him on it. Instead, they lobbed softball personal questions at him. Later, I asked one of the panelists, the dean of a private school in Denver, about this, and he said: “I wanted to ask him about academics, but it seemed inappropriate. It seemed more like a goodbye session.”
Gabe’s POL, on the other hand, was more balanced; he did a good job of demonstrating how Eagle Rock has stimulated his mind as well as his soul. He began by confessing that he still has a hard time communicating with some people, particularly authority figures. “It’s really hard for me to be civil with someone I don’t get along with,” he said. But he didn’t dwell on these matters, and soon he was explaining which classes he had taken and what he had learned. While Gabe didn’t dig too deeply—he glossed over a lot of information—I could tell he was serious about his studies.
Indeed, I knew from talking to Gabe that he had become passionate about history, and he credited one of Eagle Rock’s teachers, James Sherman, with providing the spark. And Robert Burkhardt had told me that Gabe was “coming to trust himself as a learner a lot more, and that’s building this sense of confidence.”
Nearly all of the panelists’ questions, however, focused on Gabe’s personal growth, and he, like most Eagle Rock students, was willing to discuss it. (Everyone at the school seems well-versed in the language of therapy.) Not to diminish his progress—all the people I talked to at Eagle Rock agreed that Gabe had come a long way since he first arrived in the summer of 1999—but it seemed to me the panelists were letting him off easy by asking such questions as: “Who are your heroes? And why?” and “What do you see in your future?” Why, I thought, didn’t anyone ask him to talk about the major themes in The Odyssey?
Perhaps I was being too hard on the place. Few schools, public or private, attempt to nurture students’ emotional and academic needs as holistically as Eagle Rock does. At most public schools, teachers teach, counselors counsel, and rarely do the two worlds intersect. At Eagle Rock, however, there’s no separation: Each staff member is expected to advise students on any number of matters, everybody is on a first-name basis, and there are very few secrets. “Students and staff,” the school’s brochure states, “operate as an extended family and are therefore mutually interdependent.”
In addition, one of Eagle Rock’s guiding principles is that intellectual growth can happen only after spiritual growth. According to Lois Easton, who directs the school’s professional development center, new students tend to “proceed very slowly through the competencies, often concentrating on the personal growth that comes from dealing with some of the issues that have blocked their learning for so long. As those issues are raised and addressed, the students begin to focus on academic learning.”
How successful is Eagle Rock? There’s no simple answer.
On the one hand, 55 students have graduated from the school since it opened seven years ago. “When they come in here,” Burkhardt says, “none of the students are looking at high school diplomas. Going out, all of them decide that they want to go to college or some kind of higher training.” Indeed, about half of the school’s graduates have gone on to college, and several others have entered the military.
At the same time, nearly 400 students have enrolled at Eagle Rock, which means most of them end up leaving the school before completing the program. In fact, half the students who leave do so involuntarily—they get kicked out. (Some, however, choose to reapply through the “second chance” program.) Clearly, Eagle Rock isn’t for everybody. Some students can’t handle the isolation, and others wince at the school’s touchy feeliness.
Based on the school’s attrition rate, then, Eagle Rock doesn’t appear very successful. But Honda’s Tom Dean believes the statistics are misleading. Even if they don’t graduate, he says, many Eagle Rock students are influenced by the school’s culture. And, as Burkhardt points out, those 55 graduates are students who probably would never have finished school otherwise.
Joelle S., who graduated from Eagle Rock in 1995, agrees. “I smoked cigarettes, did drugs, and obviously I was not going to graduate from high school,” she recalls. The daughter of an alcoholic father, Strasser, now 24, says that, after her parents divorced, she had trouble staying in school. Then she heard about Eagle Rock and managed to get herself into the ER 2 class in 1993. Caught smoking marijuana, she was almost expelled. But the school gave her a second chance, and she went on to graduate without incident. Strasser then gave college a try but ended up working full time instead. Now a Denver resident, she’s a customer service trainer for the Ricoh Corporation.
“It becomes your family,” Strasser says of the effect Eagle Rock had on her life. “You get endless support from students and staff. And I had the desire to change from the start. I knew I had to do something drastic, and I needed to be pulled away from my environment to do that. Eagle Rock is like a cleansing process, a detoxification of your mind, body, and spirit.”
Roland Barth, founder of the Principals’ Center at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and author of the forthcoming book Learning by Heart: How We Can Bring Wonder and Excitement Into the Schoolhouse, witnessed as much when he visited Eagle Rock. “A lot of these kids wouldn’t have made it in their home schools,” he told me. “And many of those who do not graduate from Eagle Rock have had a transforming experience.”
If it wanted to, Eagle Rock could have a more selective admissions process. But that, Burkhardt says, would go against the school’s professional development mission, which is to demonstrate to other educators that even the most incorrigible of students are not beyond hope. “For us to have any credibility,” he says, “we have to take the toughest kids that we can get in terms of the fragility of the potential of their success. If we can take kids who have been marginalized, who have either dropped out or are sitting in the back of the class with their eyes open but their minds shut down, if we can get those kids to succeed, and you’re a classroom teacher visiting Eagle Rock, you’re going to look at us and say: ‘How the hell did you do that? That’s what I want to do with my kids.’ ”
With that in mind, Eagle Rock’s disclaimer—that it “cannot, and does not, guarantee or warrant any particular result or outcome of any particular student”—makes sense. Of course, this kind of approach wouldn’t wash in a typical public school or at a private institution subsidized by the students’ parents. But because it’s a philanthropic institution enthusiastically supported—to the tune of $4-million a year—by a powerful corporation, Eagle Rock is able to set its own standards for success or failure.
Sitting on the floor of the room used for the morning gathering, Matt Rutherford leaned back against a large cushion and said: “I’m very thankful for this place. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about politics and political ideas, a lot of history, a whole lot of information. Which is beautiful. There’s a lot more one-on-one with teachers. And I’ve gotten a lot stronger and fitter. You know, I can bench press twice my weight if I want to.”
“What I like so much about Matt,” Robert Burkhardt told me later, “is that it’s as though you were with someone who’s seeing the world for the first time, in many ways. His mind just keeps opening up.”
Students at Eagle Rock are encouraged to follow their passions, and Matt has developed a taste for radical politics. “I have some real fires inside me as far as politics go,” he said. “I’d like to abolish the Electoral College. I think that’s a bunch of crap. And I’d like to help downsize corporate capitalism.” He has his eyes set on Antioch College after he graduates.
Matt has thrived at Eagle Rock. He won a scholarship to study for six weeks in Thailand and Vietnam, and when he returned, he was given the opportunity to teach a class on the Vietnam War. “He is no longer that underachieving misfit who was struggling with his feelings of failure,” his father said.
I asked Matt where he would be if he hadn’t come to Eagle Rock. He replied: “Well, I’d probably be in one of two places. I’d be dead—a lot of people get shot in the dope game—or I’d be in jail, which is where a lot of my friends are. There was no other solution left for me, my life was so insane.”
“That may be a little