Engaging the Disengaged: How One School Re-Engages Students in Learning

We’re pleased to present Eagle Rock’s chapter in the National Society for the Study of Education 2014 Yearbook entitled Engaging Youth in Schools: Evidence-Based Models to Guide Future Innovations.

Engagement can prevent struggling students from dropping out, and re-engagement in learning can help struggling students who have dropped out return to school and graduate. This chapter presents a case study about a struggling student who dropped out and then came to Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center, became engaged in her learning, and graduated. The authors provide policy and practice recommendations as well as a discussion of factors that affect engagement.

Sylvie Rose Ortiz1 is a 16-year-old adolescent from California. A child of a Hispanic father and an African-American mother, Sylvie lived in middle- class comfort until her parents divorced when she was 13. At that time, she and her mother and two younger siblings moved into an apartment with her maternal grandmother in the Compton area of South Central Los Angeles. Both her mother and grandmother worked full time; her father had abandoned the family. Sylvie’s responsibilities for her younger brother and sister multiplied, and she frequently had to miss school to take care of them when they were sick.

It was hard to stay involved in her new school and much easier to be at home with her family. Sylvie began to cut her last two classes of the day so that she could be home when her younger siblings came home. She began to cut other classes as well, using her time out of class to connect with the only new friends she could find, students who were also cutting classes and hanging around nearby convenience stores.

“I didn’t matter,” Sylvie said, recalling eighth grade. “The teachers didn’t recognize me when I was there, and they didn’t notice when I was gone.” Sylvie intercepted most school communications sent to her mother, who, like her grandmother, had begun working two jobs just to make ends meet because the family was in crisis financially.

Somehow, Sylvie passed eighth grade and was promoted to ninth grade at a nearby high school. “I’m not sure I learned anything in them, but my core classes were in the morning and usually I could get to them. I didn’t do homework, but I was a good test-taker. So I passed.”

As a freshman, Sylvie attended classes for the first month and then dropped out. “I didn’t see the point [of going to school],” she said. “My home-life sucked. My brother kept running away, and I couldn’t do any- thing for him. School was so boring.” Her friends had dropped out, and they provided her only escape from the depressing responsibilities she had at home. Eventually, she moved in with two of these friends and began to work at a convenience store. She also began to drink and do drugs with her friends. In mid-October Sylvie passed out at a party, and her friends took her to the emergency room.

Frightened by her visit to the emergency room, Sylvie moved back in with her mother, grandmother, brother, and sister. She tried to go to school again but eventually dropped out, despairing because she felt she was far behind other freshmen, still had not made friends, and had re- newed responsibilities at home. A social worker who had contacted her at the hospital remained in contact with her and suggested that Sylvie think about going to Eagle Rock, which the social worker described as an inde- pendent school in Colorado designed for drop outs.

This story has a happy ending. Sylvie Rose Ortiz became fiercely en- gaged in her own learning at Eagle Rock School and Professional Devel- opment Center. She grew to be a leader, mentoring other students, for ex- ample. She graduated from Eagle Rock in April, 2010, served a six-month fellowship with a youth services organization, and chose among three col- leges that had accepted her with a full scholarship. She selected a college known for service learning, Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, has been a leader in terms of service to others there, and expects to graduate in 2014 with a degree in sociology.

Much happened, of course, between her admission to Eagle Rock in 2006 and her graduation in 2010, as this chapter reveals. Sylvie’s path to graduation was neither smooth nor steady, but she managed to do some- thing she thought impossible in 2006—she graduated from high school, looking forward to college, believing she could succeed, and living a healthy, productive life.

What had happened during the time in between? Can the conditions that made it possible for Sylvie to succeed be established at other schools, res- cuing students who have either dropped out or are likely to do so? The authors of this chapter believe that they can. The key to Sylvie’s success was engagement, and, although public, private, parochial, charter, and inde- pendent schools cannot be expected to replicate Eagle Rock, they can adapt their environments to engage young people who are struggling to learn. The factors leading to engagement are replicable in other environments.

In the first section of this chapter, the authors describe Sylvie’s journey through Eagle Rock, highlighting school conditions that led to her en- gagement in learning. Then they discuss engagement in general and what it means at Eagle Rock. Finally, they offer policy and practice recommen- dations related to enhancing engagement in all schools.


Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center (ERS) is an ini- tiative of the American Honda Education Corporation, a nonprofit sub- sidiary of the American Honda Motor Company.2 It is a full-scholarship (free tuition, room, and board) school for high-school age students from around the country and a low-cost professional development center for adults. Eagle Rock is located in the mountain resort community of Estes Park, Colorado, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Eagle Rock opened in the fall of 1993 and, since then, has admitted and graduated students three times per year. A year-round residential school, Eagle Rock is purposefully small with a capacity of 96 students.

Its students are admitted between the ages of 15 and 17 and can stay until they graduate; the oldest graduating student was 21. About half are of color and half are male. Typically, they have not experienced success in “regular” (mostly public) schools, and most have dropped out with no expectation of graduating from high school.

The school year is comprised of three 13-week trimesters and 3–5 week breaks in between each trimester (see a typical year’s schedule in Figure 1). Most students take between eight and 14 trimesters to graduate (two and two thirds to four and one third years).

Many, but not all, students stay to graduate from Eagle Rock. Some leave on their own volition or are asked to leave because they break a nonnegotiable (no violence, sex, tobacco, drugs, or alcohol). Some of those who leave recommit to their education at Eagle Rock, apply to re- turn through a process called Second Chance, and graduate. Most who leave but do not come back are able to graduate from their home or other schools or get their General Equivalency Diplomas (GEDs). Approximate- ly 90% of all students who entered Eagle Rock not expecting to graduate from high school are able to obtain diplomas.

In a culture that does not prize testing, especially large-scale testing us- ing standardized multiple-choice formats, Eagle Rock students do well, with the differences between pre- and post-test scores at a significant, highly significant, or very highly significant level (Easton, 2008a, p. 2). Their performance on SATs and ACTs matches the profile of high school students anywhere.

Many graduates go on to college or university but not all. A few have gone on to obtain graduate degrees. As in public high school popula- tions, not all ERS students stay in college; some leave and some return at some later date. In addition, some serve in the military, get jobs, and/ or start families.


Sylvie entered with 12 other students as part of the class of ER 37 (the 37th trimester of the school since its beginning). She settled into a “house” (a dormitory with two wings, one for up to eight females, one for up to eight males, and a houseparent who is also a member of the faculty or staff) with 10 continuing and two new students, like Sylvie. In her first two weeks as a student, she attended courses required of all new students to prepare them for Eagle Rock and their 25-day wilderness trip. These included physical conditioning, learning the basics of thriving in the wil- derness, and ERS 101, taught by the head of school to orient new students to the culture. In ERS 101, she and her cohort were required to recite by memory the founding code of Eagle Rock, summarized as “8 + 5 = 10” (Figure 2), and she had to demonstrate that she understood deeply what the code means, which she chose to do through artwork and stories. Un- derstanding school culture at Eagle Rock is not left to chance; students study it in ERS 101 and it is embedded in everything they do from their first trimester through graduation.

After two weeks of orientation, ER 37 went on a three-week wilderness trip. At Eagle Rock, the wilderness trip is seen as a way to introduce stu- dents to challenges they’ll face personally, socially, and academically. It is a metaphor for what they think they can and cannot do. As it was January, she went to the Superstition Mountains in Arizona with her cohort. After a week of hiking with a 50-lb pack, making camp and learning to trust and be trustworthy (and fighting her own demons through “strong circles,” during which the whole group stood in a circle until reaching resolution of a personal or interpersonal issue), she and ER 37 engaged in a service project for a week, and in the third week reached a level of collaboration and shared leadership that allowed them to exit the wilderness. After the long drive from Arizona, the students shrugged off their packs, ran to- gether the last few miles onto the Eagle Rock campus, and were welcomed as new students (no longer provisional) by the Eagle Rock community.

As part of their wilderness debriefing, students prepared the first of the many Presentations of Learning (POLs) they would give; they each had 5 minutes to demonstrate their personal and social growth to the ERS community. Sylvie’s 5-minute presentation of learning about her wilder- ness trip was agonizing and she cried as she gave it, but other members of ER 37 and the entire ERS community supported her both physically and psychologically. She reasoned that she had managed to climb Weaver’s Needle in the Superstitions, and so she could just as easily make a 5-min presentation. She also understood that she would do regular presenta- tions and demonstrations in classes, as well as a formal one at the end of each trimester, and that she would get better at them.

During the last three weeks of the trimester, ER 37 students developed a variety of skills through learning experiences that prepare them to enter the “real” world of Eagle Rock: kitchen skills (students work in KP—Kitchen Patrol—teams to prepare, serve, and clean up meals); library, research, and computer skills; and time management and study skills. They contin- ued to work on personal and social growth as well. Eagle Rock does not assume that students know how to succeed. All first trimester experiences, including the wilderness trip, are orchestrated to help students learn to succeed rather than succumb to failure. Success is not left to chance.

Sylvie continued to do service projects with her cohort, learning the value of service as well as learning through service. For example, ER 37 built a play shelter at a preschool for low-income families. After initially reacting to service in a typical way (“What! They’re not paying me for all this work! Why should I do it?”), Sylvie began to take on leadership roles in service projects. Service helped her overcome feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness. She discovered that she liked being of use and, with other students, engaged in over 500 hours of service per year. She also liked learning mathematics and other subjects through service because service gave learning these subjects greater purpose.

Sylvie also learned how to prepare a Presentation of Learning (POL) packet to introduce herself to panel members (such as policymakers, teachers from other schools, university professors, or simply friends of Eagle Rock) who would witness her end-of-trimester exhibition of learn- ing, required of every student. The packets include a cover letter to panel members; an autobiography that is updated each trimester and presents information on both academic and personal growth; a description of class- es taken and learning achieved; a list of service projects; a list of books read; the beginnings of a moral and ethical code; and a set of growth state- ments that fit this sentence frame: “I used to ___ and/but now I ____.” Students know that panel members can ask questions about the contents of these packets as well as about the POLs themselves.

Over three days and in concurrent sessions, each student delivers a 15-minute presentation which is followed by 15 minutes of questions, first from panel members who come from outside Eagle Rock, and then from the audience comprised of peers, faculty, and staff who are likely to ask different questions from those asked by panel members. In addition to witnessing her peers’ Presentations of Learning, Sylvie also watched five graduate POLs, each 1 hour (or more) attended by the whole community. Not only did she learn from her peers through observing their POLs, she also raised her own expectations. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps I will get to do a graduate POL.

Like all ER students in their first trimester, Sylvie could not go home. In subsequent trimesters, they and she (if she could arrange it) could go home occasionally on weekends, but going home also meant miss- ing out on important community endeavors and activities. Community is important at Eagle Rock. Small as it is, the whole Eagle Rock community can fit into one large room: students, faculty, staff, fellows, administra- tors, parents, family members, and visitors on campus. For example, the whole community participates in 30-min Gatherings each weekday, except Wednesdays, when they participate in a 1-hour Community Meeting. Gath- erings and Community Meetings feature face-to-face information sharing; dialogue and discussion on issues and problems; rituals and story-telling; humor, fun and games; rewards, recognition, and celebration; a focus on what 8 + 5 = 10 looks like in daily ERS life; the reading of letters from grad- uates, former staff members, and friends of Eagle Rock; presentations on personal growth from near graduates; focus on leadership and learning; and singing and silence. Students often organize and run these meetings or parts of them.

In addition to congregating as a whole community, faculty and staff connect with a house and participate in house meetings, and they play intramurals with students in their houses against those in other houses. Advisories are smaller groups within houses that unite students, facul- ty, and staff to focus on individual progress. Gender meetings twice a month allow students to focus on personal issues such as sexuality. Also, students serve with adults on a variety of committees, including those charged with hiring new faculty or staff or improving some aspect of Ea- gle Rock. Most important to Sylvie was the community available through just hanging out with fellow students and faculty and staff in the Lodge and taking meals together.

Her first break, between Trimesters 37 and 38, was a real challenge for Sylvie, who could hardly wait to get back to her friends. Naturally, she indulged in all the behaviors that had sent her to Eagle Rock, forgetting the admonishment before she left to “wear one hat”—the Eagle Rock hat—and practice 8 + 5 = 10, even while home.

Sheepishly and a little hung over, Sylvie returned to the campus for ER 38. She participated in a two-day service project with the entire Ea- gle Rock community. She also engaged in community-building activities with her housemates during a three-day house retreat. During the ensu- ing two-day all-school retreat, she and students and staff focused on the meaning of a book they had been given to read during break, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Along with others, she welcomed ER 38 students when they arrived, and served as a mentor to one of them, just as she had had a mentor in ER 37.


In an advisory meeting at the beginning of ER 38, her peers and staff advi- sor helped Sylvie understand that graduation from ERS is different from graduation from traditional schools. For example, Sylvie had no credits from her previous high school as she had attended it for the first few weeks only, so she expected to be admitted as a freshman, something that would have embarrassed her because of her age. However, she soon learned that ERS does not divide students into grade levels, such as freshman, sopho- more, junior, or senior, and it does not expect students to advance from one grade to another in a year’s time or graduate in four years’ time.

Like most new students, Sylvie also understood high school according to a “regular” school model of seat time. She thought all she had to do was show up for minimum number class periods, do some assignments, take tests at a passing level to get credit, and thereby gain enough credits in the required classes to graduate. She learned that there are a variety of learning experiences at ER, of which classes are only one. Others include service activities, internships, committee responsibilities, and self-initiated and independent study. She learned that classes are vehicles for learn- ing, not units of credit, and that she needed to document what she had learned—through any learning experience—in order to get credit.

Best of all, Sylvie discovered that ERS provides a map to graduation, the Individualized Learning Plan (ILP). The ILP is simultaneously a descrip- tion of graduation requirements, a way of noting progress towards gradu- ation, and a transcript. Sylvie’s advisor shared the ILP from one of the advisory’s graduates with the entire advisory (Figure 3).

On the first page, left column, they found the 5 Expectations Power Standards, which describe the final demonstrations, performances, or documentations students must provide in order to graduate. These are based on the five expectations from the Eagle Rock code 8 + 5 = 10. The power standard for each expectation establishes the importance of the expectation in terms of life at and after Eagle Rock. The assessment gives students some guidelines for the demonstration, performance, or docu- mentation they must produce to prove proficiency in the standard.

When students have achieved a level of proficiency or better on an as- sessment, according to a rubric specific to it, the registrar checks the box in front of that expectation and puts the demonstration, performance, or documentation (or an artifact of it) into the student’s portfolio.

Sylvie’s advisory examined the middle column on the first page, Distribution Requirements. Students are required to earn a minimum of 24 credits in this column, at least two in each of the five expectations. Once students have met the required two credits per expectation (a total of 10), they can pursue the remaining credits in a manner that matches their strengths, struggles, and goals. Thus, they can concentrate on expecta- tions that are the most important to them—what might be called a ma- jor—after they have engaged minimally in all five expectations.

The credits in this column reflect the accomplishment of classwork, such as a science portfolio, to a level of proficiency or better. The instruc- tional specialist determines how much credit can be awarded, based on the demands of the work (usually one or two credits). The titles after the number of credits in this column are the titles of the learning experi- ences, often courses, followed by the dates and trimester the credits were recorded.

Within a single learning experience, students might earn credits for more than one expectation (or more than one credit for the same expec- tation). For example, in one learning experience, a student may have de- signed and carried out to a level of proficiency or better a service project (recorded as a credit under Expanding Knowledge Base) and written an essay about an issue raised in class (recorded as a credit under Effective Communication). Or, in a single class, a student might complete to pro- ficiency or better two mathematics portfolios (recorded as credits under Expanding Knowledge Base).

Sylvie and her advisory talked about the Required Experiences on page one in the far right-hand column of the ILP. These describe specific docu- mentations a student must produce in terms of the expectations. They do not necessarily produce these in a class. For example, students create their personal growth portfolios, their Portfolio of Possibilities (planning for their future) and Life Skills Portfolio (personal budgeting, for example) on their own or with the individual help of a staff member. They do Pre- sentations of Learning outside classes (although classes involve them in making plenty of presentations of learning). They may enroll in a class to help them with the food service credits or do these through KP. They may create their service learning portfolio through classes or by working on their own as they engage in any of a number of ERS service learning opportunities. Peer mentoring occurs outside of class.

When they flipped to page two, Sylvie’s advisory noticed that this page provides a place for details and explanations of what is on the first page of the ILP. It also includes Non-Credit Awards, Experiences, & Recogni- tions, one of which is “3Ps.” Sylvie already knew about the 3Ps; in fact, she had received a 3P Superstar Award twice in ER 38, which meant that she had no marks against her for a week in terms of Preparation, Participa- tion, and Punctuality. She didn’t see any reason she couldn’t get zero 3Ps, thus getting a Superstar Award and having Zero 3Ps marked on her ILP for each week of each trimester. She didn’t yet know about Excellence

Awards, which are given at the end of each trimester to 5–10 students, staff, and others who have gone “above and beyond” in some way. And she found herself excited by the unusual Explore Week class, the Green River trip, which was also recorded on this page.

She was impressed that leadership counts so much at Eagle Rock that instances of it are recorded on the ILP. A wing leader is someone who has served as the leader in either the boys’ or girls’ wing of a house or dormi- tory. Students do chores once a week, and each crew has a leader; the stu- dent whose ILP Sylvie’s advisory was viewing was the leader of the Library Research Center (LRC) clean-up crew during one trimester. A KP leader is someone who leads a Kitchen Patrol team in terms of food preparation, service, or clean-up. A Mag 7 leader is among the Magnificent 7, a group of veteran students who have responsibilities in the evenings and on week- ends in terms of monitoring the behavior of others, providing assistance to students who need help, and assisting the staff on duty.

Although Sylvie did not know it, this ILP was the latest generation of ILPs created by the faculty based on standards current at the time. Initial- ly, ILPs referenced standards published by professional groups such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. When Colorado developed the Colorado State Model Content Standards (with the ERS Director of Curriculum chairing the English/Language Arts Committee to develop standards in that discipline), the Model Content Standards were the basis for the ILP. Currently, the ILP reflects the philosophy and standards ex- pressed as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), in accord especially with the CCSS’s emphasis on higher level thinking and literacy.

As Sylvie studied her own ILP, she appreciated that the expectations were so clear and seemed worthwhile. Who could argue with a require- ment to create healthy life choices or communicate well? She also appreci- ated the transparency of the ILP; she understood exactly what to do. Still, she was a bit dismayed about all she had to do. Only after she had com- pleted ER 38 would it be clear to her that she could work on more than one expectation and document several of the distribution requirements from a single learning experience.

She was also a little daunted by the rigor of the requirements. How in the world, she wondered, would she be able to do the major research project, which required her to “Explore a topic you are passionate about, you know little about and communicate your new knowledge to a prede- termined audience”? Like many students, before coming to Eagle Rock she had written nothing longer than half a page, and these hurriedly com- posed paragraphs were mostly plot summaries of books she found boring.

At the end of ER 37, teachers of the classes scheduled for ER 38 had pitched their courses during one lively Gathering (“Who ever heard of teachers acting like the worst TV sales guys ever, just to get students to take their classes?” she noted in a letter home), and Sylvie had registered for three classes that excited her: The Science of Cooking, Gonzo Journal- ism (taught by the head of the school), and Entrepreneurship. She liked having choices and being in classes with students both older and younger than she.

Although she was not aware of it, early in ER 37, any staff member who wanted to teach a class (especially the instructional specialists, fellows, and student teachers) had crafted one or more course proposals for ER 38, using the five expectations, power standards, and other aspects of the ILP as the basis for these courses. Midway during ER 37, the Director of Cur- riculum and the instructional specialists had analyzed the course propos- als and decided which ones would create an optimum course schedule for ER 38. They made sure of several things: (a) that near-graduates had the courses they needed to help them graduate; (b) that there were offerings addressing all five expectations; (c) that the courses catered to a variety of learning style preferences; and (d) that the schedule provided a blend of old, familiar, and cherished courses and new exciting offerings.

Then they had to create a schedule for ER 38. Conventionally, the day has three periods, and most courses are one period in length for the entire 10 weeks. But sometimes course proposals require some reconfig- uring of time. For example, service learning courses often need two pe- riods so students can travel to and from a service site and do substantial work while there. Intense courses such as Devising Your Own Moral and Ethical Code require a shorter but constant time period, best scheduled for five weeks, one period a day. Obviously, as one alteration in the con- ventional schedule is made—such as scheduling two periods for a class or one class for five rather than 10 weeks—other alterations also need to be made, and this process is complicated because ERS always wants to give students a variety of classes from which to choose. As a small school, ERS has the luxury of formatting learning experiences to fit the needs of the students, instructors, and content, but the process is not without its challenges.

The classes Sylvie took were very different from the classes she had taken at her previous public high school. First, there were no textbooks; students used teacher-made materials, the Internet, the library, and pri- mary resources (including real people they could interview, such as the chefs and chemists Sylvie interviewed in her Science of Cooking class). Second, there were no grades. Student work is declared proficient or not according to specific rubrics that students are provided advance of their work, and may even have created themselves with the guidance of instruc- tors. If not proficient—yet—the work can be redone until it demonstrates

proficiency or better. Sometimes “yet” means that students carry work over into the next trimester, folding it into what they do in new classes (as Sylvie did with work started in Entrepreneurship); sometimes it means that they independently work to complete in one trimester something started in an- other. Sometimes students abandon the work they have started and, later, begin again, perhaps with a new focus or a new process.

Sylvie learned that most learning is project based; some learning in- volves students teaching other students; all of it is discovery or inquiry oriented. It is active and interactive. Sylvie seldom sat and simply listened to a lecture—although occasionally she learned through mini lessons that led to activities. She also seldom took a quiz or test; she discovered that she had to demonstrate her learning in other ways.

According to Sylvie, assessment had always been a bit of a “hidden-ball trick.” For example, she had seldom known what would be on a test, some- times being lucky and sometimes not. At ERS, she welcomed being assessed according to documentations of learning that she produced according to known performance qualities. The rubrics were especially valuable to her because she knew exactly what qualities she had to demonstrate in her work for it to reach proficiency or better, and the instructional specialists often crafted mini lessons related to these qualities. The rubrics also estab- lished rigor in the ERS curriculum and, through them, Sylvie learned to raise expectations for her own work. Gradually, the rubrics stimulated Sylvie to strive for quality, rather than settle for whatever was the minimum, as she had in the past.

In two of her classes, Sylvie had two teachers, called instructional specialists, and a fellow; in the third, she had three teachers because ERS was hosting a student teacher. She struggled to call the adults she worked with by their first names but gradually began to like what a first-name basis connotes in terms of equality as learners. Instructional specialists are expected to be proficient in a particular discipline but cross-disciplinary in their thinking, and above all, experts in what it takes to help students learn.

Each year, Eagle Rock hosts 12 fellows who are part of Public Allies, a national organization that develops new generations of diverse lead- ers (http://www.publicallies.org). Each year, a few ERS fellows enter and complete ERS’s alternative licensing program approved by the Colorado Department of Education. In addition to fellows, Eagle Rock sometimes has other interns, student teachers, graduate researchers, and other indi- viduals who want to study and learn at ERS. The large number of adults plus the small number of students means that most classes have about 15 students and two or three teachers.