Forbes – 11 Alternative Schools That Are Real Alternatives

Tom Vander Ark,
Health Leadership High School in Albuquerque.

Health Leadership High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

High school is tough for a lot of kids. The trudge through disconnected courses that seem irrelevant. The social scene is debilitating. Life challenges may include food and shelter insecurity. This combination of challenges, boredom, frustration, and social humiliation is more than they can take. Some ultimately drop out or look for an alternative.

Trying to push all kids through a content-centric, compliance-oriented model just won’t work. A variety of alternative approaches have been attempted. Following are a few approaches educators have to develop for youth that haven’t been successful in traditional schools.

Ten years ago, many of us were hopeful about blended alternative high school programs—but (like credit recovery programs before them) many of those half-day, sit in a computer lab and click through online content learning experiences turned out to be boring and not very effective. There are still a handful of regional chains operating these kinds of programs, but many are under attack given weak performance (even considering growth).

The best of blends are typically not more than 50% online, feature small group, teacher-led instruction, real world connections, and strong youth and family supports.

Today In: Leadership

Engaging Alternatives 

Bronx Arena High School serves over-aged, under-credited youth who have dropped out or are not on track to graduate; these are typical characteristics of a transfer school in NYC. The small, relationship-based school (with no more than 200 students) partners with nonprofit SCO for youth and family services. Each student is paired with an advocate counselor, who provides guidance and support for individual goal setting in the personalized, self-paced environment.

Boston Day and Evening Academy is a student-centered, competency-based school where students progress based on demonstrated mastery rather than seat time. Enrollment begins with an intensive orientation including post-secondary planning. Groups of about 18 students spend time every day with an advisor. Students benefit from wraparound services and a school open 12 hours a day. Teachers use a variety of digital tools that help create a personalized approach. The school year includes breaks for community-connected projects (see feature).

Health Leadership High School in Albuquerque is a small project-based high school for students not well served by traditional schools. The hands-on, community connected, project-based school prepares young people to become community health advocates and leaders in the healthcare industry.

Each summer the staff solicits project ideas from community health providers. Most students work on three per day. Every project must have deliverables valuable to the community. Students meet with their advisor for an hour each day, where they check in on projects and build social and emotional skills using asset-based resources. Students also participate in a paid internship (see feature).

ACE Leadership High School, an affiliate of Health Leadership in Albuquerque, serves about 400 students who have already or were on their way to dropping out of high school. The project-based approach provides authentic and meaningful learning experiences for young people who love to design and build things and want to become leaders in the construction profession (see feature).

Liberty Academy, north of Kansas City, organizes learning in six-week bursts of interest-based learning often connected to one of 100 community partners. Students set goals in about four success skills during each burst. Teachers in this competency-based school help students to document their growth weekly.

Integrated Supports

RISE High, a program of DaVinci Schools, serves the unique needs of Los Angeles youth   navigating foster care, housing instability, probation, or other circumstances that have disrupted their academic journeys. The integrated flex-schedule, credit recovery model gives youth the voice and choice necessary to pursue their academic goals while honoring the responsibilities they have in their lives. Opened in 2016, RISE won an XQ grant.

RISE High works with a network of youth-development agencies, municipalities and support centers to provide counseling, case management, tutoring, job readiness training, career pathways, internships, extracurricular opportunities, leadership development, and more. RISE sites are co-located with service providers across the city.

Eagle Rock (@EagleRockSchool) in Estes Park, Colorado (above), an initiative of American Honda, is both a tuition-free private residential high school and a professional development center for educators (and a very cool place to visit). There are five expectations that guide course and project design: developing an expanding knowledge base, communicating effectively, creating and making healthy life choices, participating as an engaged global citizen, and providing leadership for justice.

High Dose Tutoring

Brooklyn LAB personalizes learning with a next-gen platform and two hours of small group tutoring daily (see feature). The middle and high school serves students in the heart of the Brooklyn Tech Triangle. While not considered an alternative school, about 40% of LAB learners have complex needs. Opened in 2017, the high school won an XQ grant.

Fusion Academy, founded in Solano Beach, California, is a network of 52 one-on-one private schools educating middle and high school students with particular attention to social-emotional learning.

Alternative Networks 

The Upstream Collaborative is a project led by Big Picture Learning and supported by the Stuart Foundation to redesign alternative education schools in California. This community of practice includes schools across the state classified as ‘alternative’ and supports strategies that offer students equitable access to deep and sustained learning.

Another Big Picture partnership in a high-challenge community is Vaux High School. Big Picture works with the School District of Philadelphia, the local housing authority, the teacher’s union, Community College of Philadelphia, and youth and family services. Ninth graders take a Real World Learning class to gain work-ready competencies and they start internships in tenth grade. Students present public products at exhibitions at the end of each semester.

The Internationals Network for Public Schools serves immigrant youth who are new to learning the English language. The 29-school network integrates language development and academic content while building student and family capacity for integration into American society (featured on CompetencyWorks and EdSource).

Independent School Magazine – School News: Documentary Follows Students Through Their Orientation Journey

All Who Dare

Before joining Eagle Rock School (CO), students are tested. Though probably not in the way you think. 

As the recent documentary All Who Dare showcases, each cohort of new students leaves behind their families, friends, and familiar environments for a 24-day orientation program in the remote wilderness. 

Eagle Rock, a tuition-free, residential high school, is committed to helping the most disengaged students find their way back to an appreciation of education. For many students, it’s a last chance to find educational success. The school is an initiative of the American Honda Education Corporation, a nonprofit subsidiary of the American Honda Motor Co., Inc. 

Honda and Eagle Rock were looking for unique opportunities to showcase the school’s 24-day wilderness experience and landed on the idea of a documentary film. All Who Dare—also the school’s motto—follows nine incoming Eagle Rock students who embarked on the orientation trip in Colorado’s Lost Creek Wilderness in May 2016. Guided by experienced wilderness educators, the students are challenged physically, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. They quickly learn that completing the trip is only the first step in taking responsibility for their lives.

Pictured: The documentary debuted in September 2017 at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. It continues to be shown across the country. Courtesy of Eagle Rock School (CO)

Local Memphis – WEB EXTRA: A Look At The New Crosstown High School

MEMPHIS, Tenn. ( – The new Crosstown High finally opened its doors to their inaugural freshman class this week. According to Principal Chandra Sledge Mathias, students can look forward to a curriculum-based around partnerships with over 40 local businesses within Crosstown Concourse.

“The partners in this building are really excited about working with our students, which is incredible because we’re not having to beg people to work with teenagers. They’re open to that and they’re excited about sharing what they’ve learned in their professions with our students,” says Mathias.

The staff at Crosstown High is thinking outside the box when it comes to their project-based learning curriculum. “Our teachers are developing curriculum and they’re working with partners at MIT and Eagle Rock Professional Development Center in Colorado. We have a support team that’s really helpful when we’re thinking about how do we take these innovative projects and make sure there’s still a deeper learning aspect,” says Mathias.

Parents beware. Crosstown High’s first freshman class of 150 was selected from a lottery of over 300 applicants. The already popular school will be enrolling an additional 3 freshman classes over the next 3 years until they arrive at capacity.

If you’d like to learn more about Crosstown High, CLICK HERE.

Estes Park Trail Gazette – 25 years of learning at Eagle Rock School

By Nic WackerlyTrail-Gazette

As Eagle Rock School celebrates their 25 years of learning, they have reflected on the key learnings experienced with both the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center.

“We have been in a reflective mode in the last year, just in terms of what have we learned in the last 25 years,” Head of School Jeff Liddle said. “We have done that internally with some of our staff and leadership team and we did an alumni survey, … plus some exercises we have done with the board of directors.”

It is through this reflection that Eagle Rock School was able to generate a long list of learnings that have occurred over the past 25 years. This was then boiled down to a list of ten learning from the Eagle Rock School and five from the Professional Development Center.

American Honda President Toshiaki Mikoshiba and Eagle Rock Head of School Jeff Liddle break ground on new faculty housing.

American Honda President Toshiaki Mikoshiba and Eagle Rock Head of School Jeff Liddle break ground on new faculty housing. (Courtesy Photo)

“We are a small school of 72 students, boarding year round, so we learn a lot from working with those students who have been underserved in other schools and not successful, part of the reason we do that is to directly serve those students and give them an education,” Liddle said. “The other reason we do it is because we have a professional development center that works with schools all over the country and our work with these students helps us stay grounded in challenging issues and really learn about that.”

The ten lessons derived from working with students at Eagle Rock School include: a shared culture, engaging the disengaged, asking more of your students, the art of civic engagement, students taking ownership of their own learning and development, a holistic approach to growth, developing trusting relationships, embracing differences in people and in thought, a sense of community and the voice of a student has value in teacher development.

Just reading through the ten lessons gives one an understanding of what is important to Eagle Rock School. One very unique feature is the holistic approach to growth. This starts for students during their first trimester at Eagle Rock School.

“There is an integration or orientation to the school culture that helps people from the beginning understand ‘oh I signed up for something that is more than what it was like at my public school,’ and the 24 day wilderness trip really is the beginning of that,” Liddle said.

After being at school for around a week, the new students go on a 24 day wilderness trip where they have a holistic experience. Students take their intellectual experience from the classroom and recognize what they do not have an understanding of or need help with from instructors or peers through the immersive wilderness experience. It allows the student to create a framework for when they are in the next challenging situation, Liddle said.

Civic engagement is another key learning that is a major focus at Eagle Rock School.

“High school education should not just provide technical opportunity, in other words, I can be prepared for college, be prepared for the workforce, but…if we are in a democratic society we need to know how to operate inside that context,” Liddle said. “For us, it has to do with student voice and allowing for different opportunities for students to have a voice inside our community.”

Students at Eagle Rock School run gatherings, have input on hirings and policies and discipline, Liddle said. There is also a community service point of civic engagement, where service is integrated into the academic program, including working with students at Estes Park Elementary School through tutoring Spanish and English.

Over the last 25 years, there has also been key learning from the Professional Development Center.

“Through our Professional Development Center we are working with other schools that are typically underfunded, underserved and underresourced, around the country who are dealing with a similar demographic, we have a different kind of credibility with those schools because we are doing the work on our own school,” Liddle said.

The five lessons from the Professional Development Center deal with their experiences supporting other school around the country. These include context is everything, learning from the inside out, focus matters, asset-based approaches stick and inspiration is an ongoing pursuit.

Learning from the inside out has been an important key for the Professional Development Center. The work that they do is job-embedded or work based, where they go into a school and look at what a school is already doing and facilitate different protocols to help strengthen what the school does well, Liddle said.

Focus matters has also been a big piece for the Professional Development Center. They have learned that they are most effective and have the most impact when they focus on the implementation stage of change, and making sure what they do sticks well. Part of that is another key learning: inspiration is an ongoing pursuit. The Professional Development Center has found that the schools they work with need continued support to help implement changes and make sure they stick, Liddle said.

Even though Eagle Rock School has been reflecting on the last 25 years, they are excited about what the future will bring.

“We are working on a campus master plan, the idea there is to build some more buildings, they are mostly faculty housing,” Liddle said. “That is going to help us programmatically, we want more people on campus working and living in the community, it also helps us with the affordable, accessible housing issue and to recruit and retain a really diverse staff.”

Through the Professional Development Center, the future is focused on exploring networking through technology to try practices with multiple schools instead of just at Eagle Rock School, Liddle said.

Japanese American Resource Center of Colorado – “Profile on” Japanese Americans in the Performing Arts


“Profile on” Japanese Americans in the Performing Arts

Meghan Tokunaga-Scanlon, Part 2
by Margaret Ozaki Graves

Recently, I was lucky enough to travel to Estes Park to visit the beautiful mountain campus of Eagle Rock School and meet with Meghan Tokunaga-Scanlon, a Colorado native performer and educator in the performing arts. As mentioned last month, Meg leads performing arts programming at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center, a small, private boarding school that focuses upon serving adolescents with “engaging, progressive education practices.” The students had just returned from a school break when I arrived and the campus was laid back, yet buzzing with youthful energy. Meg and I gathered on rustic, oversized leather couches in the lodge to continue our interview.

MOG: You are a Colorado native and Japanese American. What is your connection to the Front Range JA community?
MTS: My grandparents used to be farmers. They lived in Alton and they moved to Greeley—I think my mom was in elementary school. And so they knew a lot of people through that and they had a huge connection to people through bowling as well. My grandpa used to be a part of JAMBA, the Japanese bowling league….I would honestly say the connection began again when I picked up this musical and started reaching out to different organizations.

MOG: How did you find connections to the Internment Camp experience?
MTS: I googled JARCC, got in touch with them and I went to one of the All Things Japanese Sale. And I got to go to Pacific [Mercantile], so I happened to meet Marge Taniwaki. We met there, and then, every connection after that—I felt like I saw her everywhere and that was great….Hearing Marge’s story specifically—she came, she actually drove up to talk to our students and gave her depiction and her experience of what happened.

MOG: What drew you to Allegiance and why did you choose to perform it at Eagle Rock?
MTS: My mom and I had seen it [Allegiance] advertised when it was in New York and I was like, “Oh man, I wish I could go see it, but it’s so far away.” And then it came to the [movie] theatres….so my mom and I went to see it and we ended up seeing a bunch of our family there. I was just a really meaningful experience, I think, for the community… one—the show was written; and then—it got broadcast in a much more equitable way. I just remember sitting in the theatre being like, “Wow, I feel like these themes are coming up again in our world and it would be so cool if we could do this show [at Eagle Rock].”
And so then, I just happened to write to the company and was like, “Hey, I don’t know if it is up for licensing and I’m just curious” and I figured they were going to say, “No, it’s not up for licensing” and then they just shot back with “Yeah, are you interested? I could send you something to look at,” and I was like, “Oh!? Okay!” Yeah, it just kind of happened by chance and it [Allegiance] ended up fitting really well with what was going on at the time…. It feels really important to do this right now.
Part of the bigger picture is I feel like Eagle Rock intentionally picks shows that have more depth to them. Often times the topics are a little more controversial, but I find that ours students relate to that a little more.

MOG: Talk about the student and audience response to the production?
MTS: I think talking to Marge made it real for them. We don’t have a huge Asian or Pacific Island population here in Eagle Rock and so, even from the beginning, we were talking about the importance of even if you don’t look like the people in the story, the story is still universal, so how you communicate that story is important even if you don’t look Japanese.
I think the relationship they [the students] built with Marge and the more exposure they got to the [Japanese American] community, they just connected. The last few weeks when we were putting everything together, I could just feel the weight on [the students] and every time that they talked about it [the show] or talked about it in public with people they were like, “This is a really important story and we have to make sure that people understand and that they know.”
Because we’re up in the mountains and really far away from a lot of other places, so I feel like its really hard to get an audience…. [The audience] wasn’t hundreds of thousands of people, but it felt like everyone who came was really positive and really enjoyed it. And I think, really, the whole point was to start dialogue. During intermission, we had snacks and I heard people talking and talking about different ideas and looking at students’ projects. That was really awesome to see.
MOG: Tell me more about the students’ projects.
MTS: We had two students research Japanese Internment Camps in general….and then other [students] zeroed in on topics like No-No Boys. We talked about Sympathizers, people outside of the community who sympathized and were doing covert operations to try to help and support people.

MOG: What is your approach to developing choreography?
MTS: Choreography feels super important to me—in the sense that it should communicate the story. It shouldn’t be dancing for the sake of dancing. Why is the movement happening? How intentional can it be? So a lot of it [choreographing] is just listening to the music over and over again and thinking about “What is the message that needs to be communicated in this song and how can the movement add to that or enhance it?”

MOG: You mentioned helping your students to connect to Japanese American Internment experience presented in Allegiance by identifying universality in the story and characters. Can you speak a bit more about your perspective on issues of casting and diversity in the current performing arts?
MTS: It’s interesting. We taught a class a couple of years ago where we had this conversation of casting and color-blind casting versus intentional casting and when we were picking this show, we were talking about the difference between educational and professional [performance]. Very often with educational [productions], I think it should be as diverse as possible….I think there is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation and that’s all dependent upon the instructors—what research are they willing to do? What conversations are they willing to have? What experts are they willing to bring into the conversation to enhance the production so that it’s really a community effort and based people’s actual lives instead of just, “Oh, I watched this video and I interpreted it. I think that’s what it means, so we’re going to do it here.” So I think, often in educational settings—like middle school and high school—casts should be as diverse as possible. So, whatever your community, if you have students of mixed race and ethnicity, but the part says it’s white, that shouldn’t matter. The person who is best to play the part should play the part. I think that’s important for students to learn empathy and understanding and respect of other cultures; we can’t understand something that we don’t know. So I think in education, we have a little bit more room to play with it and that’s the best time for them [students] to learn, ask questions and make mistakes, and try things and really try to understand what that means.

And then, professional [performances], I think that’s where we need to do a better job. We do have the people who can perform in a show like In The Heights and be Hispanic and Latino and Latino. We DO have the Asian and Pacific Island actors to be in Allegiance and we don’t often see that. I think representation is important and, honestly, going to see Allegiance [Broadway production cinecast] at the theatre was a defining moment for me as a Japanese woman. I never see that. Even my mom was mentioning “I’ve never seen that many people that look like us in a movie.” I know that there’s a recent [revival of] West Side Story that was in Spanish and English and I was like, “Yes! That’s exactly what we should be doing.” Because for so long, in an attempt to pretend that we were “color-blind” casting, we just used a lot of yellow face and black face. Even though stereotypes are based on a truth, they’re not the only truth. So, I think in the professional setting, we need to do a better job and write shows that are representative of communities that are living here in the states.

Inspiring Success – A blog from Creating IT Futures Lending Opportunities to Students to Engage in STEAM Learning Outside of the Classroom

By: Tom Liszka

As part of its NextUp initiative to interest teens in tech careers, in 2017, CompTIA partnered with the FUSE program at Northwestern University to expand and enrich STEAM learning for middle and high school students around the country.

Sara Benge
Sara Benge

With support from NextUp, Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, CO, received a new FUSE Studio with CompTIA-funded tech activity. Eagle Rock is a full-service, not-for-profit educational reform organization that operates a year-round residential high school, serving adolescents who are not thriving in their current situations, for whom few positive options exist, and who are interested in taking control of their lives and learning.

“FUSE is lending opportunities to students to engage in STEAM learning outside of the classroom, outside of their traditional daily classes where they can pursue things purely based on their own interest and curiosity,” said Sara Benge, science instructional specialist at Eagle Rock. “They’re excited to learn the skills, so I think it has offered new insight into the world of STEAM learning that they didn’t have access to as much before.”

FUSE is a STEAM (STEM plus Arts) education program that facilitates student exploration and learning through hands-on, interest-driven challenges inspired by real-world STEM and design practices. In FUSE, students work in a studio-like environment, learn through making, and develop 21st century skills such as problem solving, persistence and communication.

“I knew I loved FUSE from the first time I saw it,” said one student. “As soon as I heard that we got a 3D printer, I didn’t even know what I could do with it, but I knew I wanted to do something with it. The idea of creating something is so appealing to me.”

In the free-choice environment of FUSE, every activity has to be engaging at every step of the way to maintain student interest.

Becky Poore
Becky Poore

“What FUSE gives is that infinite set of resources that you get with the internet or a whole bunch of math problems, but it gives it to us in a physical form,” said Becky Poore, math instructional specialist at Eagle Rock. “We have this wealth of physical resources that students get to pick and choose from, and this wealth of software that students can play around with and feel like they have that independence and choice.”

In FUSE, teachers like Benge and Poore act as facilitators, helping to guide the process of exploration and discovery by encouraging students to problem solve, take risks, try and try again, be creative and learn with and from their peers. Because students work on challenges in a different order and at different paces, they develop unique expertise that they share with their peers. Students become leaders, peer mentors and experts in various STEAM-related tools and practices.

“That’s the dream for me, is to not even have to intervene or come over and say, ‘I know how to do it, let me show you how to do it,’” said Benge. “I don’t need to be the keeper of the knowledge. The students have all of the tools.”

The biggest difference is that the students are the ones driving their learning, says Benge, and that they do not need to wait for the teacher to tell them what they’re doing that day, and they don’t need to wait for an instructor to lead them through a certain activity.

“They can come in and know what to do to get started, and all of the tools are at their disposal without needing to wait for an instructor or teacher to come around.”

Students in FUSE have access to a diverse suite of challenges. They choose who to work with and whether they work alone or collaboratively. This choice and interest-centered environment helps all students find challenges which inspire learning and engagement.

“I really like the fact that we can have our work be completely unique,” said the student. “The whole creation process, you can follow the guidelines and do what the tutorials ask you to do, but once you have the tools from that, you have the ability to really expand and make whatever it is you want to make.”

FUSE Studio at Eagle Rock School
FUSE Studio at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center

Each challenge is a carefully designed educational activity composed of levels in increasing difficulty. Each challenge is based in a STEAM topic and designed to appeal to students’ personal, non-STEAM interests. The leveled structure of FUSE challenges allows for personalized learning. The early levels hook students and provide early success, while more advanced tasks in later levels build confidence and ability.

“Level one is a whet the appetite kind of level, which gets students started with something easier, so they can see where they might go with the later levels, but it’s getting them to have that first success,” said Poore. “The next levels get more and more complicated, and they get to see newer and different successes and feel themselves moving toward that goal while also building the skills that they’re going to need to get there.”

The increase in difficulty sometimes leads students to not complete all the steps within a challenge. Many people may deem this a ‘F’ if they were grading a paper or filling out a report card, but the “F word” in question here – failure – is very rarely used, if ever, in a FUSE studio.  That’s because in FUSE, failure is just another try.

According to Benge, it’s important for the student to determine what ‘done’ is for them on a certain challenge. She offered her personal philosophy, saying, “I don’t think a done point requires them to have accomplished a set amount of challenges or a set amount of levels. It is up to them, and they have that challenge by choice and freedom to move through the levels at their own pace. We work with them on setting goals, but goals aren’t often centered around achievement of levels. It’s achievement of problem solving, or asking for support, so I think those are more of the things we work with them on in FUSE.”

“My favorite thing about FUSE is watching students find the challenge that sparks their excitement and curiously. Sometimes that takes a bit, but it’s cool to see them work through challenges and really stay focused on something that maybe they haven’t done in the past. I do think that students surprise themselves, but I think that it’s not necessarily exclusive to the FUSE labs. I think that students do that in their lives everywhere all the time.”

Shift Your Paradigm – Episode 032 – Eagle Rock School & Professional Development Center Interview with Michael Soguero

Episode 32 takes us to the Eagle Rock School & Professional Development Center in CO and a conversation with Michael Soguero, a founding member and Director of Professional Development at the Center.

Located in Estes Park, Colorado, with an enrollment of 72 students, Eagle Rock School implements practices that foster each student’s unique potential and helps them use their minds well. Eagle Rock School serves adolescents who are not thriving in their current situations, for whom few positive options exist, and who are interested in taking control of their lives and learning. The school provides grounding for the professional development center work of supporting engaging, progressive education practices throughout the United States.

The Eagle Rock Professional Development Center works with educators committed to making high school a more engaging experience for youth. Through their unique services and offerings the PDC strives to accelerate school improvement and support implementation of practices that foster each students’ unique potential.

Our conversation led us to reflect on the following questions:

  1. What have you learned today that can accelerate your school on the path toward learner-centered education?
  2. How might you reshape your work in shifting the mindset of the adults in your school through professional learning?


Japanese American Resource Center of Colorado – “Profile on” Japanese Americans in the Performing Arts

Meghan Tokunaga-Scanlon, Part 1
by Margaret Ozaki Graves

This month, we begin a two-part interview with Meghan Tokunaga-Scanlon, an energetic and passionate music educator, who leads music, theatre and dance programming at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado.  Meg is a Colorado native and has extensive experience as a singer and dancer, having begun studies and performance as a very young child. The first installment of our interview focuses upon Meg’s training and college experience, which may be particularly interesting to college-bound students and their parents.

Earlier this year, Meg and her students performed what I believe to be one of the first and only student productions of Allegiance, a musical about the Japanese-American Internment experience. Next month, the interview will include more specific information on Meg’s teaching, work at Eagle Rock and their recent production of Allegiance.

MOG: I know that you are Colorado native. Where are you from?

MTS: I was born in Aurora and lived there only for a little bit with my mom and then we moved to Greeley and I was there for most of my upbringing.

MOG: Discuss your start in the arts?

MTS: I was in tap, jazz and ballet since I was about two years old and was in dance until I was about 17 or 18, every week and did pointe and hip-hop and a bunch of other different styles.

I grew up listening to music, I was always singing, I was always in school choirs and when I was in 5th grade I auditioned for the Greeley Children’s Choral. While I was singing in that choir outside of school, I was in the band in middle school. My aunt actually played clarinet and I was very intrigued with it because I saw the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus” when I was a little kid and I just remember the scene where the girl’s playing clarinet. As soon as I found out my aunt had a real clarinet, I made my mom take me to the music store and we bought some reeds and I had no idea how to play this instrument.

I didn’t audition for my first theatre production until high school. I was a pretty shy, quiet student and—while I enjoyed music and I auditioned for solos when I was in school—it was a really scary thing for me…it was a really vulnerable, personal thing. So even auditioning for theatre in high school was really scary at first and I wasn’t even going to do music in high school…. Through a bunch of people I started making friends with who were all in theatre and forensic and music, and I just started freshman year and it became what I did all the time.

MOG: What drew you to pursue a career in music education?

MTS: It all started my senior year of high school. Like a lot of my students at Eagle Rock, I had no idea what I wanted to do … I had thought about being a lawyer for a long time, I had thought about being a veterinarian because I liked animals, but then that was quickly subdued because I was grossed out by blood and I didn’t want to put animals to sleep.

We got a new choir director and he actually had people vote for section leaders—so I first started trying out teaching when I was a senior in high school, where I was the Soprano I—the highest voices—section leader; I would call extra rehearsals and run rehearsals in class when we split into sections. And I just found that I really loved working with people and I loved getting to help them be successful and feel good about what they were doing. So by the end of my senior year, [I knew] I wanted to go into teaching.

MOG: What was your college experience like?

MTS: So I went to Colorado State, that wasn’t a great experience in terms of—I don’t feel like I grew a lot as a musician and as an educator in that year—but I feel like I learned a lot about myself and what I wanted to do, the kind of person I wanted to be, the kind of educator I wanted to be.

When I moved to Chicago, I kind of had to start over [at VanderCook College of Music.] It is the only private music education school in the country where their only major is music education, so everyone who attends VanderCook can be a music educator. That program is super-intensive—typically, a traditional music education degree takes about 5 or 6 years, because you’re in the music school and you’re in the education school—and VanderCook is everything all in one.

So that is exactly what I was looking for…very intensive. You learn all of the instruments—all woodwinds, brass, string—and then you have to play in an ensemble.… Everyone in the school is a part of the orchestra, everyone is a part of the band and everyone is a part of the choir and so, a lot of those experiences helped me and, I think most remember what its like to be a beginning student. I’d never played violin when I was younger, so learning how to play that and then having to play in an ensemble was terrifying, but I think also gave me a lot of tools on how to learn and how to remember that uncomfortability and to also learn how to explore and try new things.

SparkHouse: Unleashing the Learner-Centered Future For All

SparkHouse is a national community of young leaders from learner-centered environments who are committed to transforming education in the United States. Acting as powerful advocates and leaders in the learner-centered movement, these learners are a driving force in the national education conversation.

On November 3rd and 4th, 2016, Education Reimagined held its first SparkHouse convening. This was the organization’s first true step toward a future we’ve been striving for since the launch of our vision in 2015—“In this future, the education system is structured with the learner at its center.”

It only took one SparkHouse gathering to illuminate just how powerful learner voice can be in education and beyond. Over the course of two days, 42 learners from 13 states and 15 learning environments took the wheel and drove the learner-centered conversation to new heights. There wasn’t any questioning whether the movement should or shouldn’t happen—the question was, “How quickly can we get this to all learners?”

We discovered this sense of urgency once again during our second SparkHouse gathering in November 2017. In both instances, every learner immediately began exchanging contact information, discovering the unique strengths everyone brought to the table, and formulating ideas on how to introduce and expand the movement in their communities. They came to the event as leaders of their environments and left as leaders of a movement.

Their voices were so powerful that we could do little more than simply have you read about their ideas and excitement yourself.

What do you wish to see in this movement?

First and foremost, instead of student, we should say learner. Learners can teach, learn, they can do anything. We can break away from the segments of teacher, student, and school, and just have a community of learners. Everyone’s focused on learning and helping each other learn.” —Michael, Manchester, NH

“I think it’s important for us to develop this common language we’re building on. We’re all calling the same thing different things which can be confusing to us and traditional schools. So if we stick together, they will do it, too.” —Hannah, Cedar Rapids, IA

“A lot of people claim they have the ‘right’ model. Replacing the system with another one won’t work and is dangerous. There needs to be infinite models. The key is variety and options.” —Alexander, Floyd, VA

“There are still systems at play in a learner-centered environment. The SAT is a barrier for me. I can publicly speak and create business plans, but then the ivy leagues say my skills are good but my SAT scores are too low. How do you take those barriers away? How do you restructure the system? There’s no correlation between the score on your SAT’s and your success in college.” —Naseem, Bronx, NY

“In a traditional environment, if you miss one day, you don’t get that day back. You’re on chapter 2.6, but missed 2.5, so you don’t understand 2.6, and then you realize you don’t even understand 1.9, so you can never move on. That needs to go away.” —Corinne, Grand Junction, CO

“I think it’s important for students to be self-directed. In a traditional environment, people are just listening to the teachers and following teachers. That’s not what real life is like. Out of school if that’s your expectation, you won’t know what to do.” —Gabby, Floyd, VA

What is the leadership you want to contribute to the movement?

“One of the things about believing in yourself and believing in others is taking the empowerment to move it forward. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be scary. It’s taking the baby steps forward to not just find your own empowerment, but bring it out in others. They might not be able to see it, but you can bring it out. Bring the empowered person you’ve been these last few days back to where you’ve came from. We’re all learners. Anyone you see, anyone you meet, treat them like human beings and spread what you know.” —K.J., Atlanta, GA 


What would you want to say to our readers about learner-centered education, learners in general, and/or your experience at SparkHouse?

“Attending SparkHouse allowed me to be surrounded by learners and educators united in a common goal: to revolutionize education. If learner-centered education was implemented worldwide, learners would become more excited to learn and would develop the skills necessary for their personal success.” —Lexi, Campbellsville, KY

“When teachers talk about learner-centered education people ask, ‘Where’s the evidence of this working?’ But, when students talk about learner-centered education, we are the evidence. SparkHouse solidified for me that students are ready for education to change, and this new community of learners is done waiting for others to change it for us.” —Anya, Atlanta, GA

“Students are special because they are the future—filled with the creativity to have new ideas, the optimism to challenge the status quo, and the drive to make the world a better place. SparkHouse reminded us of that, showing us that the real leaders of this movement are already doing their part to change their schools and communities.” —Kushal, Durham, NC

“Learner-centered education is an exciting initiative that truly helps make teaching and education about the most important part of it: the learner. SparkHouse allowed me to see learner-centered environments from across the country, and it made me excited for the possibilities that can come from this initiative. I can’t wait to see where education goes from here!” —Danielle (mentor), Pittsburgh, PA

Are you ready for SparkHouse?

SparkHouse has become a powerful community within the learner-centered movement that stretches well-beyond the two days we come together in person. Young learners (and their mentors) are able to take the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they collect at the gathering and apply them within the contexts of their local communities and beyond.

We’ve heard stories of learners presenting to their local Board of Education, state legislature, district administrators, and mentors. We’ve seen learners create their own national organization to engage even more youth in the learner-centered movement. We’ve watched as young learners command the stage in front of education audiences at major conferences and events across the country. And, we’ve witnessed learners declare they want to become educators themselves, so they can bring learner-centered experiences to the next generation..

All of these stories are just the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible when we engage youth in the conversation about the why, what, and how of transforming education so that every learner can explore, discover, and live into the futures they desire.


Interested in learning more about SparkHouse? Send an email to share what excites you about SparkHouse, the role you in play transforming education in your community, and how you’d like to get involved.

Estes Park Trail Gazette – Inside Arts – Eagle Rock tackles serious topic through performance

By Zach Clemens

Eagle Rock School is performing their annual musical next week on Thursday, April 5 to Saturday April 7 at the Ruesch Auditorium at the YMCA of the Rockies where they will showcase their talented students in a performance of “Allegiance.”

All three shows start at 7:30 p.m. and entry is a free-will donation. The students are lead by Eagle Rock’s music teacher/director Meghan Tokunaga-Scanlon, who has been at Eagle Rock for almost four years.

“Allegiance” is a period musical and is born from the mind of George Takei, who is probably best known for his portrayal of Mr. Sulu in the original Star Trek franchise.

Takei is Japanese, and during World War II his family was sent to an internment camp like thousands of other Japanese Americans. “Allegiance” is based on those experiences in that internment camp, focusing on a number of Japanese families as they struggle to live locked away far from their home in California.

Tokunaga-Scanlon is also Japanese, and while that period of history was discussed in her household, she realizes it isn’t in other homes. Showcasing this story was an opportunity to start a conversation.

“Especially with what is going on in our country right now, I think this is a great show to start a dialogue and bring awareness to this time period,” Tokunaga-Scanlon said.

The serious topic is not new for Tokunaga-Scanlon, who likes to pick unique shows that can have a more complicated message or content.

“I like to pick shows that are a little bit different, with hefty content,” Tokunaga-Scanlon said. “I actively seek out something more complicated, and wanted to do something different.”

She said that “Allegiance” fell into their lap, as far as gaining the rights to perform goes. She simply contacted them, and once she found out the rights were available, she and her students got to work.

Eagle Rock is on a trimester system, and at the end of every winter trimester they perform a musical. There are 14 students in the show, which is a class, along with about five staff members.

Tokunaga-Scanlon said that the cast is pretty new, with only two or three students returning to the class from last year. They all auditioned in November, and have been practicing since December on the production. For the first five weeks of the power standard class, which is the equivalent of an advanced placement class at Eagle Rock, the students had two hours of class time in the morning, and two hours in the afternoon.

“Because it is a power standard class, it is longer in length and has a lot more rigor,” Tokunaga-Scanlon said. “They rehearse in class but there are other components to it, like a history component where the students learn about the history of Japanese internment camps, but also theater education as well. It is a pretty intensive class.”

She starts each class period with some meditation, which helps gets everyone on the same track, and she always gives a lot of attention and affirmation to the students who may have never done anything like this before. Tokunaga-Scanlon said that she really ups the ante on professionalism after those first five weeks though.

“This allows the students to experience what it means to be an actor or musician in this field. We get really [strict] about time and time management, so they can really experience what that is like at their age,” Tokunaga-Scanlon said.

She said that this class creates an environment that will show students what they are capable of, and that with time and effort, they can accomplish whatever they set their minds to.

“They should feel proud of themselves, and if they become artists that is great, but [whatever they do in the future] they will have this experience in the field,” Tokunaga-Scanlon said.

She hopes on a broader level, this production brings awareness to the topic in the community.

“I want to bring awareness to these events, not just for students and staff, but for the community of Estes, and engage in dialogue and really make those historical and societal connections,” Tokunaga-Scanlon said. “We hope something like this makes people more curious, with more love and understanding.”

All donations will go toward the Eagle Rock Graduate Fund and each performance will also have Japanese snacks and green tea available.