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.

Extra Yard – College Football Playoff Foundation e-Newsletter – February Honoree

Jon Anderson is a Colorado educator at Eagle Rock School, a tuition-free alternative high school specifically designed to engage kids who haven’t had success in traditional learning environments.

Anderson’s interest in teaching is focused on building relationships with individual students, an emphasis that led him to a school with an untraditional learning structure: “I was interested in ways to teach that weren’t the lecture-style that I grew up with that didn’t actually work for me as a student,” he said. While Jon was studying to become a teacher at the University of Northern Colorado, a professor recommended Eagle Rock School because the unique structure would play to his strengths.

Anderson joined the Eagle Rock staff full time in 2002. “Eagle Rock allows me to focus on my students as individuals and get to know them on a deeper level; I get to hear their stories, their dreams and their goals. All of this means I get to build trust, and when we trust each other, all kinds of learning can happen.”

Anderson’s investment in his students led to a significant impact on one student in particular, Vidal Carrillo. The experiential nature of Eagle Rock’s curriculum, and Jon’s teaching especially, helped Vidal take ownership of his education for the first time in his life. “If I hadn’t gone to Eagle Rock and met Jon, I probably would have dropped out of high school,” Carrillo said. “If I stayed in Los Angeles, I may or may not be in jail right now. I would be a completely different person.”

Visit to read the powerful story of how Mr. Anderson changed one at-risk student’s life.

Estes Park Trail Gazette – Estes Park teacher honored for nontraditional teaching style

For Jon Anderson, trust is the foundation of learning. Now in his 16th year as a teacher at Eagle Rock, a nationally recognized tuition-free residential high school in Estes Park for students nationwide who commit to reengaging in their education, Anderson’s ability to connect with his students through the nontraditional nature of their curriculum has allowed him to make a substantial impact far beyond the classroom.

This month, Anderson’s dedication to building meaningful relationships with his students and his unique teaching style are being celebrated by Honored, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping great teachers in the classroom and inspiring a new generation of talent to pursue teaching.

Through his recognition, Anderson will receive a $5,000 grant in addition to a $1,000 DonorsChoose gift card, allowing him to pay it forward to another teacher.

Anderson also had his story immortalized in a profile article by Outside Senior Editor, Matt Skenazy. In the profile featured on Honored’s website, Skenazy tells of the immeasurable impact that Anderson made on the life of one former student, Vidal Carrillo:

“If I hadn’t gone to Eagle Rock and met Jon, I probably would have dropped out of high school,” said Carrillo, who now studies biology at Colorado State University and works as an Alpine hotshot during the summer. “I would be a completely different person.”

Carrillo’s story started in Los Angeles, where his father abandoned their family and his brother had been in and out of jail. In search for new beginnings, Carrillo’s mother found Eagle Rock School as an option for which he applied and enrolled, and where Carrillo met a teacher who would soon change his life.

Though intimidated at first, Carrillo could tell that Anderson was a man of character, someone he could look up to. The two developed a bond that helped Carrillo grow intellectually and personally.

“Not only did he help me in class, but he would be there for me outside of class if I was struggling with something in my personal life,” Carrillo said. “He was interested in my future.”

Anderson credits Eagle Rock with the opportunity to connect with his students in a unique way. Incoming students begin their personal development journey with a 24-day backpacking adventure through the Rocky Mountains. This nontraditional learning atmosphere is what Anderson had long been searching for.

“Eagle Rock’s structure allows me to focus on my students as individuals and get to know them on a deeper level,” said Anderson. “All of this means I get to build trust, and when we trust each other, all kinds of learning can happen.”

Read Anderson’s full story at

Has a teacher changed your life? Honored wants to share your story and give your teacher some well-deserved recognition! To nominate a teacher, visit

Eagle Rock, a nonprofit Corporate Social Responsibility initiative of the American Honda Motor Company, is both a school for high school age students and a professional development center for educators. The school is a year-round, residential, and full-scholarship school that enrolls young people ages 15-17 from around the United States in an innovative learning program with national recognition.

The Professional Development Center works with educators from around the country who are interested in engaging in education renewal and reform. The Professional Development Center works with educators committed to making high school a more engaging experience for our country’s youth.

For more information visit

Honored is a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to keeping great teachers in the classroom and inspiring a new generation of talent to pursue teaching. Each month, Honored shines a spotlight on a teacher who has changed the life of a single student.

For more information about Honored, visit

Honored – Meet Our February Honoree – Jon Anderson

STORY BY: Matt Skenazy, Senior Editor, Outside Magazine

Vidal Carrillo’s childhood was restless. Growing up in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, he and his mother, three older sisters and older brother moved constantly. His mother worked as a housekeeper and a waitress; his father had run off before Vidal was born. Vidal’s mother did her best to encourage her kids to take their schoolwork seriously, but none of Vidal’s older siblings had finished high school and he found himself following in their footsteps.

“I would attempt to do well at school,” Vidal said, “because it’s what my mother wanted. But I would do poorly. I would regularly skip class; I wouldn’t really attempt to further my education. It was just…it wasn’t there.”

As time went on, he skipped out on more and more classes, and his grades slid. It seemed like he was destined to fall in with the gangs and drugs that were pervasive in his neighborhood. Vidal’s older brother had already been pulled into that world and ended up in jail.

After one particularly emotional visit to see her eldest son in prison, Vidal’s mother broke down and cried to a colleague at work. She felt she had tried everything; she had sent him through one remedial program after another, including a stint in a disciplinary boot camp, and yet she hadn’t been able to save him. While comforting her, the colleague mentioned a place that might offer one last chance: the Eagle Rock School, an alternative high school on the outskirts of Estes Park, Colorado.

Founded in 1993 by the American Honda Motor Company, Eagle Rock is a tuition-free school designed to engage kids who haven’t had success in traditional learning environments. The school fosters students’ academic and socio-emotional growth through experiential outdoor education, and the curriculum includes wilderness trips, fly-fishing and Telemark skiing, all situated in 640 wooded and mountainous acres at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park.

It all seemed very foreign to Vidal: The San Fernando Valley in which he grew up is not known for its green spaces, and the only trees Vidal and his siblings saw much of were in cloistered, rundown urban parks. But Vidal’s mother saw a ray of hope for her eldest son and immediately began making preparations to send him to Eagle Rock after he was released. Vidal, who was 15 at the time, recognized he was drifting down his brother’s path; having seen where it led, Vidal agreed when his mother pleaded with him to join his brother at Eagle Rock.

Shortly after he arrived, Vidal, like all new Eagle Rock students, was sent off to the Gila National Forest for a grueling 24-day backpacking trip. Despite the physical exertion, Vidal said, “It just blew my mind. I fell in love with the beauty of the trees and mountains.”

After three weeks in the wilderness, Vidal and the rest of the students returned to the Eagle Rock campus. It was there that he met Jon Anderson, the teacher who would change his life.

“I was interested in ways to teach that weren’t the lecture-style that I grew up with that didn’t actually work for me as a student.”

Jon grew up in Colorado. While studying to become a social sciences and physical education teacher at the University of Northern Colorado, Jon was pulled aside by one of his professors. She said, “I don’t think you’re going to be a very good PE teacher. You should check out this school up in Estes Park called Eagle Rock School.”

“It’s a super nontraditional alternative school,” said Jon. His interest in teaching was focused on building relationships with individual students: I was interested in ways to teach that weren’t the lecture-style that I grew up with that didn’t actually work for me as a student,” he said. The professor thought Eagle Rock’s unique structure would play to Jon’s strengths. Following her advice, Jon completed a stint as a student teacher at the school in early 1998, followed by a yearlong internship in 1999.

After a brief teaching gig in nearby Denver, he joined the Eagle Rock staff full time in 2002.  “Eagle Rock’s structure allows me to focus on my students as individuals and get to know them on a deeper level; I get to hear their stories, their dreams and their goals. All of this means I get to build trust, and when we trust each other, all kinds of learning can happen.”


“Jon’s got a really calm and grounded demeanor,” said Dan Condon, associate director of professional development at Eagle Rock. “He’s very approachable to students.”

That wasn’t exactly Vidal’s first impression. “I was pretty intimidated,” Vidal said of his first meeting with Jon, who has a long dark beard flecked with gray. “He’s a man with a man’s presence. But he still spoke gently, and he was well-mannered. I didn’t have any male role models growing up, but it was clear that he had a good character and solid morals and ethics.”

The first class Vidal had with Jon was called River Watch, in which the students collaborated with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to collect data that the state used to shape environmental policy. “Vidal was so open to learning,” said Jon. “He was hungry for knowledge. He’s soft-spoken, but it was hard for me to challenge him academically.” Eagle Rock’s classes are intentionally small, and Jon and Vidal quickly formed a strong bond. “Jon cares,” said Vidal. “Not only did he help me in class, but he would be there for me outside of class if I was struggling with something in my personal life. He was interested in my future.”

The experiential nature of Eagle Rock’s curriculum, and Jon’s teaching in particular, helped Vidal take ownership of his education for the first time in his life. “I was exposed to a new way of being,” Vidal said. “It let me choose what I wanted to do and change into who I wanted to be.” His older brother didn’t have the same success and left the school after less than a year, but Vidal persevered. He dropped his old habit of skipping class and started to become a leader among his peers.

Then, midway through his career at Eagle Rock, Vidal faltered. He broke one of the school’s “non-negotiables” – rules put in place to ensure the safety of all students. This kind of violation can lead to suspension. It was devastating for Vidal, who was about to begin a Rocky Mountain National Park internship. Jon had coordinated the program and handpicked the students who were to represent the school.

Vidal felt he had failed, that he hadn’t lived up to Jon’s faith in him. “I thought the park internship wasn’t going to be a possibility anymore. I felt undeserving,” Vidal said. “I didn’t want to ruin the reputation of the school.”

Vidal was enrolled in Jon’s Winter Ecology and Skiing class that trimester, and during a class trip to Eldora Mountain Resort, the two shared a chairlift up the mountain in driving snow. Vidal was scared. “I remember that day perfectly,” Vidal said. “I thought that I broke our relationship. We went up on the ski lift, and we’re going up and it’s snowing crazy and we were talking about the class, talking about how things were going.” Then Jon turned to Vidal and asked him if he still wanted to work in the park. “I was just…I didn’t know what to say,” said Vidal. “I was just so happy I was given another chance.”

“I watch students and see how they react to tough days. When things don’t go your way in life, how are you going to react?”

The trust and deep connection that Jon had deliberately built with Vidal allowed him to see Vidal’s mistake in the larger context of the person he had become in his time at Eagle Rock. “He worked hard in his classes,” Jon said. “He cared about his education and about his own learning.” This was an isolated mistake; it wasn’t a pattern. “Vidal and I trusted each other,” Jon said. And Jon trusted that Vidal would not falter again.

Vidal validated Jon’s faith in him and excelled at the internship, where he worked in greenhouse restoration and fire mitigation. “I lived in one of the most beautiful places in the world for a summer,” said Vidal. “My work environment was the park. I got to go to alpine environments to plant vegetation and do a real service to my new community out here in Estes Park.”

Vidal eventually parlayed the internship into a job with the elite Alpine Hotshots crew, a group of highly trained firefighters who battle the largest and most serious wildfires in Colorado and across the country.

Looking back, both Jon and Vidal saw the mistake Vidal made as a true make-or-break moment in his life. “I watch students and see how they react to tough days,” said Jon. “When things don’t go your way in life, whether it’s skiing or getting caught with a non-negotiable, how are you going to react?” Mistakes, he added, always present an opportunity to teach, to change and to learn.

As Vidal prepared to graduate from Eagle Rock, Jon told him, “I hope you can thank people, but I hope you can thank yourself also. Because you’ve created these opportunities for yourself. Sure you’ve had help, but your ability to work with people, your work ethic, your caring, have gotten you where you are.”

These days, Vidal, now 24, is continuing his work as a Hotshot during the summers and studying biology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins during the school year. He plans to apply to medical school, but he is always aware that his life easily could have taken a different path.

Jon has been “like a father to me,” Vidal said. “If I hadn’t gone to Eagle Rock and met Jon, I probably would have dropped out of high school. If I stayed in Los Angeles, I may or may not be in jail right now. I would be a completely different person.”

The experiential nature of Eagle Rock’s curriculum allows teachers and students to get out of the classroom and take learning to a new level

Photography by Lance Murphey

Estes Park Trail Gazette – Hundreds gather for author’s insights and inspirations

By Kurtis KellyEstes Valley Library Communications Specialist

A great author makes a magical connection with readers. All the more magical when an author connects with a live audience.

Such was the occasion one week ago in Estes Park, as we welcomed acclaimed writer Reyna Grande for the featured event of this year’s One Book One Valley season, hosted by the Estes Valley Library.

Over 200 attendees gathered at two public events — one offered in English, one in Spanish — to hear Grande share the inspirations that led to the writing of her memoir, “The Distance Between Us,” a book that is at once entrancing, heartbreaking and yet filled with hope. The following day, over 100 students from Estes Park High School and Eagle Rock School met Grande in their classrooms during her visit. It was all made possible through the support of the Library Friends & Foundation.

Grande first earned acclaim for her two novels, but the writing of a personal family memoir required a journey of courage that nearly halted her in her tracks on several occasions. In the process, she shared her narrative with siblings and parents, ultimately receiving their blessing to tell a story that was one of painful separations across a national border, parental abandonment and moments of cruelty, and the struggle to forge an identity as both an immigrant in a new land and an exile from a former homeland.

Grande explained her journey of forgiveness, as she ultimately reconciled with the past with the family members of her present.

While the book seeks foremost to tell a story of family bonds and fractures, it inevitably has given voice to immigrants.

“Immigrants are often made to feel voiceless,” Grande observed. “We become quiet and invisible.”

But the forced exercise of writing — of storytelling — led Grande to an opposite effect. “Only by sharing and listening can we build bridges.”

She encouraged everyone to be the sharers of their stories. And by the many responses from audience members, Grande’s book has clearly left readers inspired.

One Estes Park resident told Grande how she and her children have been reading the book together. One recent evening, the family became so engrossed in the narrative that they hadn’t realized two hours had gone by and it was 10:30 p.m., way past bedtime.

This year’s One Book One Valley has hosted special programs on writing your family story, tracing your family roots, and exploring similar stories as depicted in film.

And this Monday evening, Oct. 23 at 6 p.m., we host an integral component of our month-long series: the Immigration Simulation and Panel Discussion event. Inspired by “The Distance Between Us,” this program invites participants to walk in the shoes of our ancestors and other American arrivals through a virtual immigration experience. Included is an online website simulation, which will then be discussed by a panel of guests. Register at

Register too for the Cultural Craft event where we’ll be making giant paper flowers on Tuesday, Oct. 24 at 4 p.m. And Friday, Oct. 27 at 3 p.m., we’ll screen the PBS Independent Lens film, “The New Americans.”

May we all continue to celebrate through story.

Estes Park Trail Gazette – Estes Park students take on prejudice, discrimination during workshop

By Marcus Wade Prince, Eagle Rock School  

The workshop ended with a speech written by Marely Avitia and Marcus Wade Prince, presented at the halftime of homecoming game.

The workshop ended with a speech written by Marely Avitia and Marcus Wade Prince, presented at the halftime of homecoming game. (Courtesy photo)

In a pioneering activity Estes Park High School students partnered with Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center students to take on issues of prejudice, discrimination and identity in an Intercultural Community Building workshop.

“As a student of Eagle Rock, I have personally had conversations venting my opinions on global issues. So when asked to be a part of a two day experiment with Estes Park High School to expand the conversation, I was excited,” said one Eagle Rock Student.

The intercultural workshop not only got students thinking about action, but showed a new perspective of the power that youth has to influence it.

This activity, called "step into the circle," helped students to compare life experiences.

This activity, called “step into the circle,” helped students to compare life experiences. (Courtesy photo)

“I’m always impressed by the maturity of our students. There are many brave voices in our schools, and many who think deeply about the complex issues facing our community and our country. Most kids are just looking for opportunities to do something meaningful with their lives. It’s critical that our community encourages that desire and uses that energy,” Dustin Morrow, EPHS English Instructor, said.

“While we have sporadically done things with Estes Park High School in the past, I think this was a really solid start to meaningful work together. I think the conversations and work really struck a nerve with people, and I think this has the potential to go statewide and really influence change,” Emiliano Vivanco, Eagle Rock School student, said.

In this workshop students looked at identity, and the idea that one cause of some major issues and stereotypes, for example, is something we referred to as “the single story,” based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk. A single story is when one person with some sort of power writes or presents one story of a people, as fact and the only truth. Something we are guilty of is buying into those stories, giving the writer the power to control the story of those people.

Students analyzed current events around xenophobia.

Students analyzed current events around xenophobia. (Courtesy photo)
The first day students were asked to think of our identity and physically symbolize them through beads we hand-picked. This activity was a way for the youth involved to share some of their story. This was just one activity in that first day of empowering youth.EPHS student Kaci Vinson said, “During our two days together, we really took the time to dig deep and get to know each other (or our groups), it was a great learning experience to get to learn about what others are going through and to discover who you are. I never really stopped to hear someone else’s story until now, and I’ve learned how important it is to stop and listen before just looking at someone and just judging them. It’s important to listen, and that’s what I took away from this…is to listen and to speak out.”

Eagle Rock and Estes Park High School Students together discussing issues of identity.

Eagle Rock and Estes Park High School Students together discussing issues of identity. (Courtesy photo)

The next day students took a look at privilege, and what it means to have it or not. Some of the highlights of the day were the conversations with those students, who didn’t know about their different backgrounds and can call each other friends, while learning more about environmental racism and how that is affecting Puerto Rico.

“I was so impressed with the honesty and depth of conversation as students explored their own identities and privilege. It is an excellent foundation for future connection between the two schools,” Sarah Bertucci, Eagle Rock School Professional Development Associate, said.

Chloe Burke, EPHS Student said, “Personally, I thought the program was a beautiful and uniquely eye opening experience. The lessons and friends I discovered while at Eagle Rock I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life and I’m eternally grateful for Dustin Morrow, Glenn Case, and all others concerned who made it possible for me to go. I hope Estes Park and Eagle Rock schools confine to connect through projects and workshops often.”

The goal students came up with as a whole was to expand this conversation with more people in Estes Park, so more people can be thinking about their identity, privilege and how that affects them and others. The workshop ended with a speech written by Marely Avitia and Marcus Wade Prince, presented at the halftime of homecoming game, with the idea to help reach their goal of challenging people as one human race to have a conversation with someone they think they know, but don’t.