Education Reimagined Blog: Eagle Rock School: A Conversation with Jeff Liddle

Q: Over the course of your career, what roads led you to Eagle Rock School?

A: Growing up, I went to a public high school, then went to Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. I didn’t want to go to college. I lost my father when I was 15 and was adrift in knowing what I wanted to do with my life, but my mom talked me into trying college for a semester. I had always been really interested in the outdoors, and I associated college with sitting at a desk, so I had a hard time imagining there would be any value in that. But, when I went to Slippery Rock, I took a class in Resource Management and Parks and Recreation. All of a sudden, a new world opened up for me about what I could do with my life.

I eventually met Paul Petzoldt, the first chief instructor of Outward Bound in the U.S. and the founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School. I had a conversation with him when he visited and spoke at Slippery Rock, and he invited me to come to Wyoming to do an internship with the Wilderness Education Association for the summer.

My life continued to unfold in really interesting ways as I explored outdoor leadership and leading wilderness trips. After my internship in Wyoming, I came back to Slippery Rock, graduated, and got my first job working with adjudicated youth in Georgia in a wilderness program that acted as an alternative to lockup. Three years of that introduced me to the reality that there is a whole slice of this country that is underserved, misunderstood, and has so much potential and value if given the right context, environment, and support.

I went ahead and pursued a graduate degree with a focus on outdoor and experiential education and management. From that first trip to Wyoming until I landed at Eagle Rock, I spent 17 years working in some form of outdoor education context. Over those years, my experience as an outdoor and experiential educator grew, as well as my expertise in guiding character and leadership development.

When I came to Eagle Rock, I ran the Wilderness Program for five years—a 24-day, new student wilderness orientation course that happens at the beginning of every trimester. This position is what originally brought me to Eagle Rock, but what really drew me to the organization was this idea that a wilderness program could fit inside the context of a school. That doesn’t occur often, and I found a great deal of interest in that. I would work with these students for 24 days in the field, and then I would have another couple of years with them back at the school to see their growth and development. Most other outdoor programs sort of stand on their own. You take their course and go back to wherever you’re going.

The other piece that inspired me was Eagle Rock’s Professional Development Center. We not only want to serve the 72 students on our campus really well, but we also want to have a bigger impact around the country. That was really intriguing to me. I was at a point in my career where I wanted to be working with young people but with a bigger impact. It always seemed this was an either-or dilemma. You’re either working for an association where you’re putting on conferences and creating professional development experiences but not working with young people; or, you’re working with young people and not having this broader impact. Eagle Rock had both.

I eventually became the Director of Curriculum, a position I held for seven years. Using my experience as the Wilderness Lead, I wanted to find a way to integrate the skills and lessons learned on the expeditions with the academic curriculum in a more holistic way. The curriculum at Eagle Rock started out really innovative when it opened in 1993, but it started to drift toward a more traditional framework. When I took over as Director of Curriculum, we revamped the curriculum and reorganized it around our original values. We changed our daily schedule to allow for larger chunks of time, so our learners could do more field- and service-oriented work in the community.

For the last five years, I’ve acted as the Head of School, which puts me in charge of the school and the professional development center.

Q: Can you share more about how Eagle Rock School’s curriculum has shifted over time? 

A: We have a set of values captured in the phrase, 8+5=10. The eight stands for the themes that guide our design, the five for the expectations we organize our curriculum around, and the ten for the commitments learners are living out through their experience at Eagle Rock. So, it was those five expectations that originally guided our curriculum design. When you looked at our graduation requirements, you had to earn credit in effective communications, making healthy life choices, practicing leadership for justice, being an engaged global citizen, and developing an expanding knowledge base. That’s how you graduated. Baked inside was your math, science, and English, but that wasn’t front and center.

These graduation requirements are core to our Individualized Learning Plan (ILP). Over time, as the ILP framework went through multiple revisions, the traditional disciplines became more prevalent. Rather than the five expectations operating in the foreground as intended, they took a backseat to the siloed subjects. Eventually, the five expectations stopped showing up on the ILP altogether. Everything was grouped by math, science, history, etc. The courses were still operating in an interdisciplinary fashion, but they didn’t have our values. It was morphing toward this discipline-centric orientation. That made it harder and harder to operate with an integrated curriculum.

Students felt they were simply taking math class or science class, rather than feeling like they were learning some overarching concept that required them to draw on different disciplines in a natural way. One of the things we started to see was students getting hung up on the idea they didn’t like math, and that barrier would cause them to up and leave because they couldn’t get the number of math portfolios needed to graduate. They weren’t as engaged because the curriculum wasn’t as integrated or innovative.

I think one of the big things in our shift back to focusing on the five expectations was that the instructors felt like the things they wanted to do—and felt the students wanted to do—were no longer possible. Given the traditional route the curriculum had begun to take, they had to get through all of this “stuff.” We were able to resurface our five expectations and re-emphasize the holistic nature of our curriculum through the support of the instructors and students.

In terms of how this shift away began in the first place, I wasn’t at Eagle Rock while it was happening, so I can only speak to what I’ve been told. What I’ve understood is that each time a revision was made to the ILP, it was like the House of Representatives—everyone wanted to add one more item from their discipline. This caused an inflation of the checkboxes that needed to be filled in throughout the year and a move away from our work to create a holistic experience for the students. I think this is a natural occurrence in many alternative or progressive environments. I think a lot of people who are drawn to progressive education are drawn to it from a philosophical perspective. But, they have been successful in a traditional environment. The longer they’re in an environment like that, the more their professional insecurity grows when they begin facing questions they don’t necessarily have the answers to.

When you have this predominant paradigm that tells you to organize your curriculum by discipline, using scope and sequence, you develop a belief that if you don’t do that, your students are going to die. When push comes to shove and you’re in uncharted territory, you tend to gravitate toward what you know. I think many innovative schools that start out really cutting edge get fearful over time, and ask themselves if they might need to pull back and reimplement old techniques.

It’s important to note this is a slow drift. You don’t wake up one day and say you’re going to throw everything out and go back to the traditional framework. Rather, you do a tweak here and a tweak there and before you know it you take a step back and go, “Whoa, what happened?”

Q: What is the long-term impact of the wilderness expedition learners embark on as their introduction to Eagle Rock School?

A: It’s fundamental in a way. I always tell people, I can’t imagine this piece of Eagle Rock ever going away. I can almost see every other aspect shifting or changing but not the expedition. One reason for this is the fact we get our students from all over the country. They are disengaged, and the schools that served them did not serve them well. That can be for a whole host of reasons—the individual student and their learning style might be incongruent with sitting in a classroom; it could mean the student is growing up in a family system that is not conducive to them being successful in school; or, it could even mean the student is in a school that is poorly performing even by traditional standards. Also, some of our students have experience in the juvenile justice system, having engaged in criminal activity or participated in using drugs and alcohol. The students at Eagle Rock come from a host of backgrounds, creating a diverse mix of experience, race, culture, and gender.

All of these students show up at Eagle Rock with all the coping skills that have helped them survive whatever context they’ve been in. And, those coping strategies aren’t usually conducive to living in an intentional, residential community. It can be a real mess when they show up—they’re struggling and acting out in ways that can be dysfunctional for the community.

So, we go out for 24 days on the course to help strip away all their external influences. If we only had a one-week expedition, students would be able to hold up their facade and not embrace their vulnerability. That won’t happen during a 24-day period. At some point, we’re going to get the real deal from you. We’re going to get to know who you really are, and you’re going to have to be vulnerable and open up in a way that allows you to shift your behavior. By the time you’re done with that course, you’re not just exposed to some new ways of thinking; instead, you’ve had a chance to work through what you came in with in a productive, positive way.

For the expedition, we’ll have eight young people in the middle of the wilderness, and they have to figure out how to work together in order to travel on the course. It’s a skill-building oriented program, so we do a lot of work around effective communication, conflict resolution, and restorative practices to help them understand how to take responsibility for their actions and how to interact with people in a way that helps them sort things out. We believe conflict can be generative, and when it comes up, if you lean into it and utilize the skills we teach, you can generate a new future you couldn’t have imagined when that conflict first arose.

Overall, we get students comfortable being uncomfortable. We get them comfortable as learners, being vulnerable, and taking responsibility for their own lives. I believe all of those things are critical for them to come to Eagle Rock and be successful. It gives them 24 days to create a frame of reference. They will refer back to their experiences on the course all the time when they’re at school.

For example, many of our students like to blame other people for their shortcomings. Wilderness has such a clear, natural, and logical consequence built into the experience that students discover pretty quickly that they can’t blame anybody if they didn’t listen to how to put the tarp up when it rained and they got wet. This makes sense, right? But, there are so many arbitrary things in the world, and rules that don’t make sense to them, that they develop this habit of not taking responsibility.

Oftentimes, there’s some legitimacy to thinking the system is working against you. At Eagle Rock, we say, “You choose all of your own behaviors.” You’re not in control of the external circumstances of your life, but you are in control of how you respond to them. The wilderness trip really bakes all that in, which then facilitates their ownership of their learning when they’re back in school. When they’re struggling with something, we often ask, “What can you do to shift that? What is in your control that you can utilize to make your learning more yours?” The wilderness trip builds the foundation for that reflection to take place.

Q: How do you see this wilderness orientation being translatable to learning communities across the country that don’t necessarily have access to something like an Estes Park?

A: We realized a number of years ago that we can’t export Eagle Rock. We can’t tell a school in Albuquerque, New Mexico that they ought to be doing a 24-day wilderness expedition—let us help you design that. We’re so different, and in the early days, it caused people to easily discount our work, saying, “Oh, of course you can do that. You have this, that, and the other thing.” It was too easy for people to write us off.

We took a step back and asked: “What are the paradigms working in community change models?” What we found was you have to listen more than you tell, build on what assets exist in that community, and support those organizations with their own goals inside their own contexts.

We became focused on being context-specific, asset-based change facilitators more so than a group that says, “Let us help you adopt our model.” When we partner with an organization, we will make sure there’s alignment around a few things. The organization must show an aspiration to develop a progressive learning framework, and they must serve a demographic similar to what we serve. We like to work with larger networks, like Big Picture Learning. With so many deserving, underserved communities, these filters allow us to narrow our focus and make the largest impact we can.

Having said all that, if a school came to us and said, “We’re really interested in taking your wilderness program and integrating it into our experience here, help us with that,” we would do that. But, we would begin with the community’s assets and see what already exists that would make this program possible. Something like helping form a partnership with an outdoor organization that already exists in the community and helping develop a curriculum around their program.

When this isn’t an option, which is often the case, we look at the principles that capture the essence of the wilderness program and seek out multiple assets in the community that, when combined, can cultivate the full experience. For example, we might find an organization that offers a two-day ropes course experience that can get the wheels churning in incorporating that kind of experience into the curriculum.

Overall, our real motivation is to help communities discover ways to orient young people to their school where they learn how to take risks and be vulnerable within a safe environment. That’s the bottom line of what the wilderness course is looking to accomplish.

Q: What’s a story from your experience at Eagle Rock that captures the possibility available to learners who live and learn there?

A: If I were to tell a story that captured the idea that who a young person is at a single point in time is not necessarily indicative of who they’re going to be, I would have to talk about Calvin King.

Calvin King was interviewed to attend Eagle Rock while in lockup. I should mention, I always hesitate to tell these stories because, when I say “lockup,” people’s gut reaction is to think of our program as a place that is only serving students in the juvenile justice system. We certainly have young people who have been involved with the law, but everyone comes here by choice.

When Calvin came to Eagle Rock, you could tell he was very street-wise, very charismatic, and could work the system. He got into some discipline problems at Eagle Rock and was disenrolled. He went home for quite some time because, when you get suspended from Eagle Rock, it can be for up to a trimester or two. Calvin was likely home for six months before returning. When students are suspended, they have tasks they must complete before re-enrolling in our program. These tasks are specific to each student and the actions they’ve committed—it can range from getting a job, seeking counseling, etc.

Upon Calvin’s return to Eagle Rock, we held a restorative circle to repair the harm he had caused through his actions. He was reintegrated into the community with a lot of hesitation from students and some staff. But, he reintegrated, eventually graduated, and received a full scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta. After he graduated from there, he came back to Eagle Rock as a Public Allies Teaching Fellow for two years. Then, he went to the Christina Seix Academy in Trenton, New Jersey, where they focus on serving underserved youth. Calvin is the Director of Residential Life at the Academy.

Calvin’s story really captures what Eagle Rock is all about and this idea that what happens today does not predict what will happen tomorrow. In his words, if Eagle Rock hadn’t shown up for him, he might not be alive right now. In his view, Eagle Rock saved his life in a lot of ways.

From our viewpoint, Eagle Rock showed up at the right time for him, and through our school, he was able to save his own life. It was a process. He didn’t just show up, and it was all roses. He made some mistakes, we stuck with each other, and now he’s an amazing person doing amazing things—serving Trenton youth.

We talk with all of our staff about this, particularly in instances when someone has convinced themselves a student will not be able to succeed here. We come back to that idea. We have to remind ourselves that what has happened in this moment is not predictive of what could be in a few years.

Education Reimagined Blog: Eagle Rock School

NESTLED AWAY IN THE MOUNTAINS OF ESTES PARK, COLORADO, a “final chance,” residential learning environment is reimagining what it means to educate young learners. And, they have been doing so since 1993. With only 72 learners in attendance at any given time, Eagle Rock School prides itself on accepting learners who “demonstrate a passion and motivation to actively pursue intellectual and personal growth, and attain personal achievement outside the classroom.”

Every Eagle Rock learner begins their educational journey on a 24-day wilderness expedition that sets the tone for their entire learning experience. It is meant to demonstrate the importance of community and how much more can be accomplished through the combined strengths of their peers. And, during the expedition’s final week, learners are tasked with battling the elements on their own. By pursuing the simple goal of survival with just their own brains and wit, learners must grapple with the limitations and presumptions they’ve made about their abilities and potential—often informed by a past full of impalpable experiences—and create brand new headspace for a reimagined future.

The wilderness expedition permeates every aspect of Eagle Rock School. When facing a difficult task on their learning journey, learners reflect on the adversity they overcame during those 24 days—feeling uncomfortable, experiencing failure, unsure what the next step is—and use it as motivation to push forward and reach their goals. This cultivation of their internal drive creates in them a strong sense of learner agency. And, Eagle Rock’s model allows that agency to grow exponentially.

As a residential learning environment, learners live in co-ed housing where each socially embedded family unit teams up to democratically create basic household rules, divvy up responsibilities (e.g. chores), and establish social meetings. These units create an atmosphere where learners can, possibly for the first time in their lives, “feel safe, emotionally nourished, and comfortable.”

With this newfound safety, learners enter their more formal learning experiences mentally charged to prove what they’re capable of. Eagle Rock learning is designed to be personalized, relevant, and contextualized, set on a competency-based foundation. This allows learners to navigate the winding roads of any learning challenge with their interests and passions at the forefront and at a pace optimized for their learning needs.

Learning is a 24/7 adventure at Eagle Rock. From the wilderness expedition, to the residential life component, to the more formal learning spaces, every minute of every day is an opportunity to further develop one’s knowledge, skills, and dispositions. By creating a culture founded on the belief that anyone and everyone can realize their potential, Eagle Rock School is proving every child can become successful, lifelong learners when met where they are and provided the supports necessary to become agents in their learning.

Gettliffe Architecture Blog – Model Making at Eagle Rock School

Over 20 years ago, Dominique worked as a design consultant alongside architect David Barrett (of Barrett Studios), and architect and planner Jeff Winston, during the original design and construction of Eagle Rock School, located in Estes Park, Colorado. This year, Jeff Winston co-instructed a class on intentional design & architecture to Eagle Rock students, and invited Dominique and David to lead 3 sessions on architectural model making.

Eagle Rock School offers high school education and boarding for 72 select students, who are rewarded scholarships to attend. The school serves a diverse student body, providing an alternative setting and educational approach to enable students to find their own path to success. Eagle Rock School prioritizes personal development, community activism, environmental stewardship, leadership, and effective communication.

The first 2 sessions focused on building models to scale. There were few restrictions on materials or technique – instead, Dominique and David emphasized freedom of expression, as well as the importance of accommodating the human body both at rest and in motion.

Through their models, students developed ideas for changes to the Eagle Rock School campus. There were a variety of proposals, ranging from the addition of a skate park, or chapel, to the renovation of the existing dormitory, or cafeteria. During the 3rd session, Dominique and David offered their perspectives during group critique. Dominique said that the students would sometimes veer into joyful chaos or unpredictability during their process – but, in the end, it all came together to form proposals that were lucid, surprising, and original. He was also impressed by the thoughtfulness and depth of the proposals – some of which may go into architectural plans and construction in the near future!

Enjoy photos of Dominique and David’s time with Eagle Rock students, below.

Estes Park Trail Gazette – Eagle Rock School gets ready for summer break

By Nic Wackerly

Eagle Rock School in Estes Park is approaching their summer break and graduation.

The school operates on a trimester schedule.  Each trimester includes three months of school in Estes and a one month break.  However, the uniqueness of Eagle Rock extends beyond the schedule.  The program is focused on helping students that did not have success at a previous school.

When new students arrive in September, they will go on a 24 wilderness trip after a week of preparation.

“Our experience is that going out on the wilderness trip is a way to disconnect from the distractions of society,” Jen Frickey said, director of curriculum for Eagle Rock School.  “Over 24 days, students have to look deeply within themselves and how they interact with people.”

Students choose to come to Eagle Rock.  The application process is student led and helps ensure they are passionate about attending Eagle Rock.  The school accepts students from around the country who have not had success in a traditional learning environment.

When students return to Eagle Rock, they will continue learning with interdisciplinary project based classes.  The teachers use state curriculum standards and common core, but also focus on developing creative curriculum.  examples of this are classes about the psychology of rock climbing or the physics of a roller coaster.

Along with innovative curriculum, Eagle Rock School will feature a new Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) lab.

“We think it is a great way to explore,” Frickey said.  “Students can become creators of technology and solutions instead of just consumers.”

In addition to helping students and developing new curriculum, the Eagle Rock School Professional Development Center works with educators to help make the high school experience more engaging.  Staff at the development center consults with other schools to help them make changes and learn from what is being done at Eagle Rock.

Service remains an important value for Eagle Rock School and Development Center.

Three times a year students participate in EagleServe, which gets students out and working in the community.

“Serve the Eagle Rock and other communities through the contribution of my labors,” is one of the 10 commitments that are a part of the Eagle Rock School Values.

This next year will be an exciting one as Eagle Rock will celebrate their 25th anniversary next summer.  There will also be a documentary coming out this fall about the student wilderness program.

Eagle Rock School is an initiative of the American Honda Education Corporation, a nonprofit subsidiary of the American Honda Motor Company.  It is a full scholarship high school for students and a low-cost professional development center for secondary school educators, according to

Prescott Daily Courier – Launch Pad founder/director guides students in finding their fire

Courtney Osterfelt’s heart beats for teens.

So much so that the 36-year-old married Prescott College graduate three years ago invested her grandmother’s inheritance — $14,000 — into launching a local teen center she named the Launch Pad.

The gesture was not solely a philanthropic endeavor but a personal form of redemption.

The one-time middle school Student Council president and high school athlete from a good family in Fort Collins, Colorado, said her teen years were a private horror show. Bullied and battered, Osterfelt admits she hid her invisible despair and scars with bad choices and bad influences.

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Courtney Osterfelt is executive director of The Launch Pad.

She credits a “last chance” high school, Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, with “saving my life.”

At that school, Osterfelt was able to see herself as a smart, capable young woman who could rise above any obstacle. The seeds of her future were planted. She was propelled to pursue education and opportunities that would enable her to be a force for good.

The Prescott College graduate — she earned her bachelor’s in education and earned a master’s degree in social change and community development — determined to build a career that would “pay it forward.”

“Every kid needs someone to light a fire and let them know that they can change the world if they want to,” Osterfelt said.

Her first foray into empowering teenagers was a college project: she organized a health education retreat for high school-aged girls intended to help thwart the rising rate of teenage pregnancy.

“I thought I would do it just one time,” Osterfelt said.

Instead, the 37 retreat attenders begged her to do it again. It was the birth of a 13-year, all-volunteer run conference called the Women’s Empowerment Breakthrough (WEB). It is now part of the annual Launch Pad programs in April 57 girls between the ages of 12 and 18 attended. The center raised $5,000 to cover the costs of the retreat held at a conference center on Mingus Mountain.

Never one to stay idle, Osterfelt started building a career that included working as a health educator at the county juvenile detention center; working at Prescott College organizing student activities and events where she, too, taught gender studies for five years.

Yet, ideas kept percolating in her mind on how to create a lasting outreach to teens.

The unexpected generosity of her grandmother, Helen “Tutu” Street in Denver, Colorado, enabled her to birth the Launch Pad in a small room of the Granite Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in downtown Prescott. Osterfelt committed to lead the venture with no salary for a year; she worked part-time as a waitress to pay her bills.

“There’s no rule book for starting a grass-roots organization,” said Osterfelt, who two years ago married Cooper Carr, a Prescott native, firefighter and youth advocate.

The center started out in a small pace at the Granite Peak church before they then moved into larger space at the Boys & Girls Club. A year ago, the center reopened in still larger quarters on the on the grounds of Prescott College, 302 Grove Ave.

And the center continues to seek ways to expand. Nothing is ever deemed impossible, Osterfelt said.

With an annual budget of $80,000, all now from private donations and fund-raising activities, Osterfelt was able to add two staff members and has numerous volunteers. The center serves some 100 teens each week; four camps this summer served another 100 teens.

In the coming year, Osterfelt hopes to expand again to offer after-school tutors. She even has plans for a blacksmithing class.

Osterfelt’s goal is always a safe haven for all teens, whether they are the most popular students or the wallflowers. She believes in nurturing the unique talents of every teen so they gain the confidence to become tomorrow’s leaders.

Osterfelt does not tolerate teens dismissing their worth. She lets them know obstacles “are not an excuse to quit.”

Even if she must reprimand someone, Osterfelt said she tells them they are “amazing” and she will “love them through” whatever is their storm.

“She’s just like ‘Wonder Woman.’ She’s a super hero,” said Cayden Himes, 19, a teen center member and musical event planner who is now on the center Board of Directors.

“She just has one of those hearts … she’s a server. She serves other people because that’s what does it for her,” said Cody Anne Yarnes, a real estate agency owner who annually donates about $10,000 to the center. Yarnes’ husband, Michael, was tapped as the first board president.

“She’s just an amazing human,” Yarnes concluded.

SRI Blog – SRI Pre-Service Summer Retreat 2017

 by Anastacia Galloway Reed

Years ago at a breakfast meeting during a Winter Meeting, Jonett Miniel brought together some folks working with pre-service educators. On June 19 & 20, 2017 we hosted our second summer retreat at Eagle Rock School & Professional Development Center.  Along with Eagle Rock staff Anastacia Reed, Michael Soguero and Dan Condon, SRI Affiliates Jonett Miniel, Ruth Whalen Crockett , Todd Sumner, Elizabeth Hearn, Aiden Downey, Ayodele Harrison, Pat Norman, and Susan Adams traveled to Estes Park, Colorado to collaborate with one another on how to better support pre-service teacher candidates in pre-service education using the principles and practices of SRI critical friendship.  We spent some of our two days applying the tools of Improvement Science to opportunities for improvement in our various teacher licensure programs.

Improvement Science is a methodology that uses inquiry cycles to solve a particular problem of practice.  Between now & Fall Meeting this Pre-Service group will be conducting “PDSA” cycles.  First, they’ve got an idea that they’re going to test & have planned action to take.  Then, they will do something & study the findings.  Afterwards they will act – either adopting, adapting or abandoning the idea as they continue additional cycles.

Pat, Jonett, and Susan chose to examine why too few teachers are choosing to collaborate in the face of challenge while the rest of the group dug into why too few participants in SRI critical friendship get to a place of feeling good about the support received.  To unpack those problem statements it’s important to uncover the root cause which we did through an interactive protocol called “Interrelationship Digraph”.  The group first listed 4 – 6 root causes & then forced themselves to say which cause caused the other one.  At the end of the process there is typically a root cause that is at the root of all the other effects.

Between now & Fall Meeting the two groups of folks will be engaging in frequent coaching calls with Eagle Rock as they engage in PDSA cycles running anywhere from a day to a week to a month in length.   One group is working towards developing greater agency and ownership among their interns while the other is focused on developing growth mindset among their candidates.   At Fall Meeting in Atlanta we’ll be convening again to further our work together as a Network Improvement Community, sharing with newcomers what we’ve been up to, and there has also been some talk about some relationship building amongst the group at a delicious Atlanta restaurant.

Estes Park Trail Gazette – Eagle Rock and Estes Park School District partner in Liberatory Design Thinking workshop

The Professional Development Center at Eagle Rock and Estes Park Schools have created a partnership that allows Estes Park to benefit from the nationally-renowned work done by Eagle Rock.

Together, Estes Park School District R-3 and Eagle Rock used a process of Neighborhood Learning Conversations. These conversations helped the District discover what skills the Estes community wants its students to possess as a result of their education. As part of this initiative of Estes Thrives, facilitators heard from hundreds of people in the Estes community. The top results, which the school district is now calling their Global Outcomes (GOs), are Communication, Critical Thinking/Problem Solving, Creativity, Life Skills, Adaptability, Empathy and Wellness.

To help teachers meet these goals, Sarah Bertucci of Eagle Rock’s Professional Development Center worked with Superintendent Sheldon Rosenkrance and the administration team to develop a Liberatory Design Thinking workshop. Design Thinking is a methodology used by designers to solve complex problems, and find desirable solutions for clients. A design mindset is not problem-focused; it is solution focused and action oriented.

Liberatory Design uses self-reflection and empathy interviews to ensure that all students’ needs are being met. Sarah facilitated this workshop so teachers could design 21st Century, project-based learning units for implementation next school year. As a result, students will be making documentaries about current issues, exploring the ethics around cheating, building their own solar systems, and engaging in many other fascinating learning projects.

During the two-day workshop, teachers went through a process of helping each other create these innovative projects. A group of Eagle Rock students participated in part of the workshop to help stimulate ideas and give feedback to teachers from a student perspective. These students are taking the course, “Deeper Learning and Equity,” to learn about education issues and run a week-long summer institute for educators from around the country. Teachers reported that the Eagle Rock students were incredibly insightful and helpful, especially with emphasizing the value of student input and giving students a choice in their project work.

Eagle Rock students reported that the experience was a fascinating window into understanding how hard teachers work to create good learning experiences.

Sarah Bertucci, who works as part of Eagle Rock’s Professional Development Center team, said, “I work with schools across the country, and Estes Park teachers are exceptional in the way that they jump into learning experiences and care deeply about their students. I was inspired by the projects that teachers created and feel excited for my own children to get to have these learning experiences.”

Both Eagle Rock and Estes Park School District R-3 look forward to continuing this collaborative relationship to keep moving forward with meeting the needs of the students of Estes Park.

Getting Smart Blog – Integrated Curriculum: Why it Matters, and Where to Find It

by Tom Vander Ark

Life is integrated. Why isn’t learning?

Discipline-based learning was popularized in the mid 19th century. Disciplines were locked into place by course and credit structures a century ago. While experts would argue that disciplines have unique epistemologies worth exploring, the drawbacks of a discipline-based approach have long outlasted the benefits. It dampens engagement, narrows learning and damages preparation

Eighty years ago, the National Council of Teachers of English (ironically, a discipline-based organization) encouraged correlation (casual attention to related subjects), fusion of two subjects (often called multidisciplinary learning) and integration (the unification of all subjects and experiences).

Repko (2009) and others have asserted that interdisciplinary instruction fosters advances in cognitive ability and gains in the ability to recognize bias, think critically, tolerate ambiguity, acknowledge and appreciate ethical concerns.

The rise of whole-student outcome frameworks (e.g., Deeper Learning, MyWays, NMEF Student-Centered Learning, and GPS Transferable Skills) makes extended and challenging interdisciplinary essential.

Why do 95% of high schools retain discipline-based structure and staffing decades after the cost has been shown to significantly outweigh the benefit? As Tevya said, “Tradition!” More specifically, it’s due to state graduation requirements, college entrance requirements, discipline-based certification and university education. For decades, school boards adopted discipline-based textbooks and publishers delivered. In the 1990s, state standards were set by discipline-based groups. In high schools, master schedules take on a life of their own and employment contracts lock in department structures.

Ok, ok, disciplines are a monster of our own creation. But how to break out of the box? This post outlines a few integrated schools, networks, resources and models that might be helpful.

12 Integrated Schools

High Tech High is well known for its big integrated projects. The HTH GSE is a great place to learn about integrated learning. Want the movie version? Check out Most Likely to Succeed. (Also see blog/podcast on Making the City the Textt).

Tim Kubik said “Check out @AceLeadership @HealthLeaderHS and other @NM_Center schools. No classes, just authentic projects with industry partners.”

Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent Pam Moran (@pammoran) urged us to check out Albemarle High (@AlbemarleHigh) and this video.

Eagle Rock School (@EagleRockSchool) is a demonstration site and professional development center in beautiful Estes Park Colorado. (Check out this blog/podcast with director of PD Michael Soguero).

Nuvu, in Cambridge Massachusetts, is an innovative school based on a project-based studio model lead by coaches who are leaders in their industry, experts in diverse fields, and passionate thought leaders.

Science Leadership Academy is an inquiry-driven, STEM-focused, project-based school formed as a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute. (Check out Inquiry Schools for more).

Building 21 Philadelphia is a non-selective competency-based public high school in Philadelphia supported by a nonprofit launched by three Harvard grad students. Students are supported to design their own pathway to graduation—a pathway defined by B21’s competency-based framework—with a series of dashboards for students and teachers to use to inform their experiences (featured on CompetencyWorks).

E.P.I.C.C. Academy at East Hall High School in Gainesville, Georgia, is a dynamic blend launched by @JohnHardison1 and documented frequently on Getting Smart.

Poland Regional High School, a member of the New England Secondary School Consortium, was an early leader in proficiency-based graduation. NESSC, operated by Great Schools Partnership, is leading the shift in New England to competency-based learning which opens up the potential for integrated projects.

Boston Day and Evening Academy has proficiency-based pathways that allow students to progress based on demonstrated mastery rather than seat time. Students benefit from wraparound services, digital tools that help create a personalized approach, and a school open 12 hours a day. Self-paced alternative ed meets adventure-based leadership training meets blended learning (see our feature).

Kettle Moraine, west of Milwaukee, has some very interesting charter schools including KM Perform, with a performing arts blend, and KM Global, a flex model global studies school (listen to our podcast with superintendent Pat DeKlotz.)

Boise nonprofit One Stone opened a small innovative high school to help young people make the world a better place (see feature, podcast and video).

4 Integrated School Networks

The 200 schools that make up the New Tech Network share an integrated project-based learning model and platform. Most learning takes place in big double classrooms through the collaboration of two teachers working together as a team to co-facilitate a course. By integrating subjects together, the course better reflects the way content and projects work in the world, with many subjects co-mingled. Since most secondary teachers are only specialists in one subject area, New Tech schools pair teachers together to collaboratively design those integrated projects. New Tech Teachers use Echo, a project-based learning platform with a big library of integrated projects.

A recent podcast of ours featured Oso New Tech and their English-World Studies course and innovative Art-Biology mashup. Health and Physical Education and Physics and Algebra 2 are other common combinations.

Matt Bertasso directs Compass Academy in Idaho Falls School District 91. In 2016, Matt led the development of Compass 2.0, a reengineering of course integrations (pictured below). The links between bubbles represent integrated project-based learning experiences.

Big Picture Learning is a national school network that starts with interest-based internships and adds integrated projects and personalized learning.

Similarly, Edvisions high schools support student-centered and project-based learning. Start with a visit to teacher-run Minnesota New Country School (profiled here).

EL Education (@ELeducation) is another project-based school network. The network focus has shifted to developing and supporting open source literacy curriculum. Models of Excellence is a curated, open-source collection of high-quality PreK-12 student work.

Integrated Curriculum

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) support the shift to ‘doing’ science–conducting inquiries and constructing understanding–by embracing crosscutting concepts and practices. It’s not curriculum, but NGSS should lead to more integrated content.

Buck Institute for Education is the Gold Standard for project-based learning. They offer seven integrated units on economics, six on government, and tons of examples across the curriculum.

Global Learning Models has great integrated high school courses linked to #GlobalGoals. Digital Promise also has challenge-based learning resources linked to Global Goals.

Literacy Design Collaborative (@LitDesignCollab) promotes literacy across the curriculum with quality prompts and a collaborative lesson authoring environment.

Big History Project (@BigHistoryPro) is a multidisciplinary history of life on planet earth. It’s great content for a big high school block (see middle and high school case studies).

EduChange (@EduChange) has offered integrated science since 2002.

There’s a lot more out there. What did we miss? Feel free to add your thoughts to the comments section below.

And one last thought–you don’t have to reorganize your whole school. You can start with one integrated unit planned with the teacher across the hall. Just get started!

School Leaders Now – Principals Share: The One Thing I Do Every Day Before I Leave School

Poornima Apte Poornima Apte on June 1, 2017

successful principals

 You know it: Sometimes being a principal is like drinking water from a fire hose. Despite the constant demands on your time and energy, there are things you can do every day to stay centered. Here, six successful principals share the end-of-day tasks they always prioritize.
1. Return those missed calls and emails. You’ll be glad you did.

It might seem like a no-brainer, but volleying emails and phone calls back into the sender’s court is a great way to wrap up the day. Added bonus: it might nip developing problems in the bud. Stacy Ward, principal of East Hill Elementary School in Canajoharie, New York says, “I miss calls during the day sometimes if I’m not in my office, but I make sure to follow up with everyone before the day is done.” Principal Stephen Imbusch of Walpole High School in Massachusetts agrees. “I always feel better going home if I have made some effort to respond,” he says.

2. Walk the halls and send them off with a smile.

Be present, it’s a great way to show you care about school members. “I like to be visible in and around the school as classes dismiss,” says Matt Renwick, elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, “Parents are greeted, students can get a high five or a hug as needed, and staff can ask any pertinent questions before the day ends.”

3. Eat snack with the kids. Why not?

Sharing a meal with students is a great way to snap up some candid truths about how things are going. At the residential Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, Colorado, principal Jeff Liddle loves to sit down with the kids at dinner and chat them up.

“They share big accomplishments and struggles. They’ll give me a heads up on things I should follow up on and I usually end up doing a little life coaching as well,” he says, “Those conversations kee[ me grounded in the students’ world and connected to what’s most important.” Even if you’re not at a residential school, lunch hour in the cafeteria is a neat way to get kids to spill the beans.

4. Make tomorrow’s to-do list.

Fire-fighting is no fun, so it’s a good idea to put out a spark before it becomes a flame. Stay on top of storms brewing with a quick check-in with school staff. Jennifer Schwanke, elementary school principal in Dublin, Ohio, checks in with the assistant principal and guidance counselor to “make sure we don’t have any worrisome student issues that we need to address together.” Dr. Priscilla Sands, head of the Marlborough School in Los Angeles, meets with the school’s senior advisees every morning. As she wraps up her day, she reflects on those conversations to find out exciting and challenging, and what motivates staff.

5. Conquer the clutter

Stay on top of the endless stream of paperwork—things can quickly get out of hand otherwise. Schwanke says, “I wouldn’t dream of ending the day without cleaning up the clutter on my desk so I don’t start the next day overwhelmed and disorganized.”

The Atlantic – Inside a Multiage Classroom

Dividing students by arbitrary birthdate ranges doesn’t make sense, advocates say.

By Stuart Miller

Two students walk into Francis W. Parker Essential School
The Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts Stuart Miller

DEVENS, Massachusetts—It looks like a typical class in a suburban high school. The teacher, Barbara Curtin, discusses the differences between mean, mode, and median while her students at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School sit in clusters of three or four at tables around the room. A second teacher, Lorin Hill, is there to help. All fairly standard, but for one dramatic difference—the mix of students.

Curtin’s class includes both ninth- and 10th-graders. Sometimes she even has a precocious eighth-grader or two and a couple of struggling 11th-graders. That’s because Parker offers what may be the nation’s most ambitious and comprehensive take on multiage education in middle and high school, breaking grades 7 to 12 into three divisions, with each division blending two grades together.

Multiage education is not a return to the one-room schoolhouse of yore, in which students of all ages learned different subjects in one space. Instead, students from (typically) two grades learn together in an environment that, advocates say, encourages cooperation and mentoring while allowing struggling students enough time to master material.

A long-time staple of Montessori schools, multiage classrooms spread to progressive elementary schools in the 1990s, although their use was always just one ingredient in a mix intended to provide more personalized instruction.

But the movement lost traction in the 2000s, when the No Child Left Behind era imposed more grade-level standardized tests.

“The move to standards-based education with testing on grade level has made multiage classrooms really challenging,” says Diane Friedlaender of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education at Stanford University.

Today, multiage classrooms remain an anomaly in America. Little research is being done on them in elementary schools—and the results are inconclusive—while virtually no research has ever investigated the effects of  multiage classrooms in middle and high schools, likely because so few exist. (Though there are no hard numbers, educators acknowledge the total is miniscule.)

Yet multiage advocates say the traditional approach of dividing students into single grades based on an arbitrary birth-date range is illogical. Children spend much of their time outside school on sports teams or in arts programs that are more age-flexible than classrooms. Little League baseball teams, for instance, might group 5- to 8-year-olds in one division and 9- to 10-year-olds in another, allowing children to “play up” or “play down” based on their skills. Then the same kids go to school and are segregated with others of the exact same age, but not necessarily the same development, and they are all expected to reach certain benchmarks and move on at year’s end, no matter what.

“It is hard to understand why schools have such a rigid adherence to that structure and don’t think about child development at all,” says Friedlaender.

Sandra Stone, a consultant and the author of the 2004 book Creating the Multiage Classroom, believes multiage education could be “more valuable” for older children “given the wider range of growth, both physical and emotional, as they are finding out who they are.”

Adds Friedlaender: “People in charge think more about the developmental needs of children at the elementary level so they make space for multiage classrooms there, but with older children they think more about academics.”

For some, the traditional way is more convenient, says Dan Condon, the associate director of professional development at the Eagle Rock School & Professional Development Center in Colorado. “High school is set up to serve the adults and staff members’ schedules,” says Condon, whose school offers multiage education for students ages 15 to 21 who are not on track to graduate. “It’s not set up to help young people succeed.”

Multiage education, say its proponents, puts learners at the center, socially and academically. On the social side, younger children look for guidance to older students who know the ropes, while the older students in the classroom organically learn about mentoring, leadership, and collaboration.

Paula Dallacqua, who is in her first year of teaching a combined ninth- and 10th-grade class at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx, says she tried to create specific moments for mentoring but soon found she was forcing the issue.

“Those relationships form naturally,” explains Dallacqua, “and the students don’t even always identify it as ‘I am mentoring now.’”

Fannie Lou Hamer is a small public high school that utilizes several progressive educational philosophies; the school’s innovations have led to it being named a “Gold” School of Opportunity by the National Education Policy Center in 2015 and a “model school” by the Center for Reform of School Systems in 2016. While it merges the ninth- and 10th-grades, it returns to traditional grade structure for students’ final two years, by which point struggling students will have hopefully had time to catch up.

Frank Williams, 15, says that when he entered the school last year he was skeptical of the concept but found his elders provided critical guidance. “Building a relationship with older students helps you know what to expect, and they give an example of how to stay on track,” Frank says. “If there were any situations, I had 10th-graders right there to show me how to maneuver through them. My maturity level skyrocketed.”

Now Frank is in 10th grade and he passes on his wisdom to the ninth-graders. “He helps me with my math,” his classmate Kaleb Stobbs says.

A group of students work at a whiteboard Although the ninth- and 10th-graders are mixed together, teachers try to ensure that students in the second year are still challenged. At Parker, the math teacher Dawn Crane says a student in the first year of a multiage class might be asked to solve a problem using two different types of functions while a second-year student would be expected to use three different types.

Meanwhile, for those who lag behind, multiage education provides a crucial practical and psychological boost by blending two grades, says Nathan Larsen, the assistant principal at Fannie Lou Hamer.

“If ninth grade ends and you are only three-quarters of the way toward mastering the material in a traditional school you will be left back, but here you stay with your class and have time in the second year to catch up,” he says.

Extra time is helpful in any school, but it’s crucial at Fannie Lou Hamer because here, in one of the nation’s poorest congressional districts, 50 percent of the children live in poverty and students “frequently come in with gaps in their education—they are overage and undereducated and they have missed out on stuff” says Larsen. (More than half the students also grow up in households in which English is not the main language.)

Friedlaender adds that poor and underserved children frequently struggle with the perseverance required to catch up. “They’ve had so much trauma and heartache in their lives and it becomes survival instinct, so a psychological wall goes up when things don’t come easily,” she explains. “Just saying that you have the ability to master the material and have the extra time can help them develop the capacity to persist.”

Parker Principal Todd Sumner says that many of his students also have learning issues—one-third have diagnosed learning differences and another 10 to 15 percent have disabilities. Despite that, 95 percent of Parker graduates have gone on to college and 96 percent of those students attend four-year colleges, with more than 85 percent attaining their degree within five years, the school says.

Sumner says that approximately three-fourths of his students spend two years in each division but some need more time and return to their division for an extra semester or even an entire extra year. Others may breeze through a division in a year and a half.

For multiage classrooms to work, schools need to set their curriculums and teaching schedules differently. Curtin and Hill will teach one curriculum to this year’s crop of ninth- and 10th-graders. Next year they will teach a different curriculum to a new set of ninth-graders merging with the rising 10th-graders they had the previous year. The following year they’ll return to the first curriculum, so that each group gets both years’ worth of material. Students who return for extra time have thus seen the material before and ideally have a better chance to grasp the concepts the second time around. (Larsen adds that for poor children, whose schooling is often plagued by change, either in their home lives or by teacher turnover, this looping and being around older kids offers a vital stabilizing effect.)

Sumner allows that the age-segregated world does intrude in the form of standardized tests—his students typically take the state test in eighth and 10th grade and the SAT or ACT in 11th grade, no matter where they are within the school’s three divisions.

While he believes that multiage education is beneficial to all students, Sumner says it is most helpful for those who are struggling with a certain subject.

He adds: “The world is already taking care of the kid who is accelerated, but the kid who is a semester behind is especially well-served here” once they buy into the idea that everyone learns at a different pace. “You can see that they stand up straighter after a while and say, ‘I’m not a dumb kid. It may take me a little more time, but I’m going to get there.’ ”

Andrew Welton, 17, is a student at Parker. He explains matter-of-factly that he is a junior but is still taking Division II classes with the ninth- and 10th-graders because “I was a bit of a train wreck coming into the school.”

“I wanted to go ahead with my friends—they’re my buds—and it wasn’t the best feeling in the world, but by taking the extra time, I think I really managed to figure out some of the issues I was going through,” he says.

There is challenging work for the teachers as well, since they must buy into the concept of teaching non-sequentially. Sumner says this fits with his school’s commitment to inquiry-based education, which teaches students certain key skills instead of facts that they can “regurgitate” on command.

“We’re leaving a lot of things out—we acknowledge that,” he says, explaining that their approach prioritizes depth over breadth. Students do not cover American history from the beginning to the present day, he says, but instead “learn to think like a historian and to understand the social, economic, and political drivers of any situation, so they know what the right questions are to ask about any period in history.”

Crane, the math teacher at Parker, says that math teachers in traditional schools are often uncomfortable with the notion of teaching algebra and geometry in a nonlinear fashion, alternating units in both subjects over the course of each year’s curriculum. They see them as separate subjects, but, Crane says, “The way we’re doing it, there is a connection from algebra to geometry and we build on that with each unit.”

Multiage classrooms might be an easier sell for teachers, administrators, and elected officials around the country if there was definitive research supporting the claims of its advocates. In fact, most studies of multiage classrooms date to the 1990s. At that time, a widely cited overview concluded that “Studies in which the cognitive or achievement effects of multi-age and single-age classes were compared indicated no differences between these two types of grouping.”

Stone, the author and consultant, claims the reason there have been so few studies over the last two decades is that most research has been centered around testing and curriculum. Friedlaender adds that the old research may have been skewed by small, especially rural, elementary schools that resort to multiage classrooms for budgetary, not philosophical, reasons—it is cheaper to have one teacher for two grades—and do not provide the extensive teacher training necessary. And, of course, none of the studies involved adolescents.

Ultimately, although supporters of multiage education remain passionate about its potential benefits, they tend to agree that, as Friedlaender says, “it is not a cure-all.”

“Multiage education is a catalyst or an additive for what we are trying to do here, but it is part of a larger ecosystem,” explains Larsen.

Both Larsen and Sumner see multiage as one ingredient among many others found in progressive schools: a small-enough student load to allow teachers to personalize instruction; a structure that allows teachers to really get to know each student; and project- and inquiry-based learning that is driven by questions and discussion, not textbooks and lectures. Schools that buy into these approaches can also flourish without multiage education, but advocates say it enhances the mission.

“We know every school is different and every faculty is different,” Sumner says, “and we would be slow to say, ‘Just do it like we do it.’ We would say, ‘Here are the processes we use to arrive at what works for us, you might want to think about asking these questions.’”


This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.

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