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 estesvalleylibrary.org.

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.

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Estes Park Trail Gazette – Documentary ‘All Who Dare’ follows journey of Eagle Rock students

By Nic Wackerly
A panel discussed the goals and benefits of outdoor and experiential education after the showing of "All Who Dare." From left to right, Luis

A panel discussed the goals and benefits of outdoor and experiential education after the showing of “All Who Dare.” From left to right, Luis Benitez, director of Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office and panel moderator, Rob Smariga, CEO of the Association for Experiential Education, Narinda Heng, wilderness instructor at Eagle Rock School and featured in “All Who Dare,” Mohammad Thabata, a student at Eagle Rock School and featured in “All Who Dare” and Head of Eagle Rock School Jeff Liddle. (Courtesy photo)

“All Who Dare” a documentary about the Eagle Rock School’s 24 day wilderness orientation trip for new students, debuted at the Stanley Hotel last Thursday evening.

The feature-length documentary followed nine students and their journey to become a student at Eagle Rock School in Estes Park. Eagle Rock is a residential, tuition-free high school and an initiative of the American Honda Education Corporation. The school accepts students who have not had success at a previous school and desire to make the most out of their high school experience.

The documentary follows Brett, Mohammed, Cameron, Virginia, Diego, Anthony, Morgan, Vincent, Spencer and their wilderness educators as they embark on their 24 day wilderness education experience. Students must complete the trip to become members of Eagle Rock School.

The filmmakers for Eagle Rock School’s documentary, "All Who Dare," which was produced with support from Honda. Editor Ellen Bittner

The filmmakers for Eagle Rock School’s documentary, “All Who Dare,” which was produced with support from Honda. Editor Ellen Bittner (left), director and producer Kiera Faye (middle) and director of photography Joshua Voelker (right). (Courtesy photo)

“All who dare is our school’s motto and it represents the spirit of Eagle Rock,” Head of School Jeff Liddle said.

The students in the documentary have to overcome challenges, disagreements and nature. They show courage, leadership and ability to adapt and overcome challenges throughout the documentary.

Kiera Faye, director and producer of “All Who Dare,” experienced the power of the wilderness to break someone out of the ordinary.

“When you step away from the environment that you are used to and you step out into this area with all this space and you are only with the group that you are traveling with it kind of changes your perspective, … you get a fresh look at things,” Faye said.

For some of the students in the film, a change of perspective was important to help them on their journey to be a successful part of the Eagle Rock community.

“The big takeaway is the power of building communities, … having these students in the wilderness where all they have to depend on is each other, community comes immediately to the forefront,” Faye said.

After the showing of the documentary, there was a panel discussion regarding the impact of wilderness education.

“[The wilderness experience] gave me a calm more fulfilling view of myself and it really gave me a chance to really change,” Mohammed said, one of the students who was featured in the documentary.

Rob Smariga, CEO of the Association for Experiential Learning also participated in the panel and added his thoughts on the importance of these types of educational experience.

“There is research that shows a program like this wilderness experience at Eagle Rock helps students build a sense of trust, a sense of belonging and connects them to a group of peers,” Smariga said.

Trust, belonging and connection to peers helps these new Eagle Rock students become productive members of the community at school.

Jakfoto Films produced the documentary with assistance from American Honda and Eagle Rock School.

School Reform Initiative Blog – Flipping PD – My Experience at the SRI Winter Meeting

By Anastacia Galloway Reed

When people think of professional development, typically the first thing that comes to mind is a room with someone at the front speaking information probably using some type visual aids.  And don’t forget the eager participants jotting down notes (or daydreaming if the content isn’t engaging).  What if professional development was different?  What if professional development mirrored more of John Dewey’s ideology of “learn by doing”?

Last fall I volunteered to serve as part of the planning committee for the School Reform Initiative’s Winter Meeting.  Then, I pushed my comfort zone even further when I was selected as a facilitator for one of the collaborative learning groups.  Taking on those two roles – supporting the planning of a large conference as well as facilitating the bread & butter of the conference – flipped the model of professional development for me.  Instead of being a participant at the conference, I found myself crafting the professional development experience of others.  Suddenly, I was in meetings with people I admire.  Educators who spent years developing the protocols I use daily, whose professional work inspires my practice.

At the heart of SRI’s annual conference is discussing problems of practice with a small group of educators, many of whom you may not know.  As part of my previous experience as a participant at Winter Meeting, I arrived having prepared my own problem of practice to share & brought with me an open-mind to contribute to my small group.  I had invested minimal time prior to the conference & left with great insights for my own practice.  But, taking on the role of co-facilitator involved a total immersion in research & collaboration with a total stranger who ended up becoming a dear friend.  We spent weeks reading & searching for the perfect articles around equity in our education system & spent considerable time discussing which protocols we should match to which article.  Don’t forget the hours spent debating this essential question:  How do you build trust within a group of strangers to talk about deep, and sometimes personal, issues like equity and who we are as educators in the skin we are in?   When I arrived at Winter Meeting this past year in Denver, I had invested time, energy, & emotion in crafting a transformational experience for our small group.  I arrived prepared to have deep and meaningful conversations with others, to push their practice, and to expand my thinking.  I was heavily invested in the conference, it’s success, and the experience of others.

Once I met Michael Phelps while spending hours waiting for a delayed flight.  He’s was a nice enough guy, and I didn’t feel the need to get his autograph or ask for a selfie.  But, when I returned home from Winter Meeting after spending time with Daniel Baron, being part of a meeting with Gene Thompson Grove, getting feedback on my facilitation from Beth Graham, Jonett Miniel, and Raquel Diaz, and breaking bread with numerous inspiring educators whose work spans decades, my husband claimed I was the weirdest star struck individual.  Sure, Michael Phelps is a pretty amazing athlete, but the people I interacted with at the conference are some of my heroes.  Educators dedicating their life to a system I too want to improve for the youth of our country.  Had I not pushed myself  professionally to volunteer as part of the planning committee and small group facilitators, I would not have had the opportunity to work closely with those people nor would I have had the confidence to seek their feedback.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that transformative experience I had at Winter Meeting.  At the conclusion of our small group’s session on Saturday morning, our participants shared out the deep and meaningful impact of our discussions.  Since Winter Meeting I’ve had the privilege of staying in touch with our small group participants & continuing our discussions around deeper learning & equity.  Knowing that my contribution to the conference from the planning committee to the facilitation team resulted in participants leaving feeling empowered and inspired to make change happen in their settings was an incredible high.  Not only did I receive feedback from educators I admire further developing my craft, I gained experience planning a national conference, developed long-lasting friendships with educators I admire, and left the conference with a deeper understanding of the issues facing our education system as related to equity because of the prep I had done to craft those conversations.  Although the bread & butter of the SRI Winter Meeting remained the same (deep conversations around problems of practice with a small group of strangers), I left with so much more than a few good ideas.

This piece written by Dewey strikes me as relevant both in my classroom as well as the spaces in which I am a learner – an eager educator seeking professional development.

“Why is it that, in spite of the fact that teaching by pouring in, learning by passive absorption, are universally condemned, that they are still so entrenched in practice? That education is not an affair of “telling” and being told, but an active constructive process, is a principle almost as generally violated in practice as conceded in theory. Is not this deplorable situation due to the fact that the doctrine is itself merely told? But its enactment in practice requires that the school environment be equipped with agencies for doing … to an extent rarely attained.”  – John Dewey

SRIs annual conference is a professional development experience like no other. I’ve had the opportunity to be both a participant and a facilitator and the experience is truly meaningful. If you are given a chance to be part of planning & facilitating a large conference – take it.  Push yourself to learn by doing & grow your professional practice.  Administrators and classroom teachers can all benefit from this experience.

Hope to see you in Atlanta for the 2017 Fall Meeting!

Anastacia Galloway Reed (agalloway@eaglerockschool.org) is a Professional Development Associate at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development. Click here to learn more about Eagle Rock’s Professional Development work.

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.

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