Even the most sophisticated of education experts will sometimes make the faulty assumption that environmental education is mostly for the well off. But environmental education is not a “rich kids” pastime. It has real meaning for rural and inner city youth as well. Recent study and experience show that environment-based programs can work wonders for at-risk youth who immediately take to its relevance and the sense of responsibility it can instill. The Eagle Rock School in Colorado demonstrates this effect.
The American Honda Education Corporation founded the Eagle Rock School in 1993 as a haven for high-school students who struggle in traditional academic settings. Some of these students suffer from problem relationships at home; most have dropped out, been expelled, or given up on completing high school; some have made poor decisions regarding drugs, alcohol, and gangs; and many exhibit low self-esteem. Eagle Rock School invites such students to apply for admission to their tuition-free, year-round boarding school, which is nestled in a secluded valley near Estes Park. Eagle Rock School accommodates approximately 100 students in its six student houses.
The school’s mountain setting provides the heart of an innovative curriculum that incorporates both service and the environment into subjects such as math, art, philosophy, and social studies. Both environmental science and service are part of the school’s code. Service-based academics, which are linked to Colorado’s content standards, help to transform once unsuccessful and at-risk youth into academically successful students and engaged citizens.
Service-learning projects allow the students to address problems in the community while learning about topics that interest them. The Eagle Rock experience begins with a wilderness trip that includes a weeklong service project as well as education about the local environment.
The curricular commitment to service continues when formal classes begin. For instance, in “Touch the Future,” students become counselors and instructors for inner-city third and fourth graders who have no experience in the Eagle Rock mountain environment. Eagle Rock students teach the younger students about the ecology of their home regions and the mountains through adventure games and other activities. In another course, “Eagle Rock Press,” Eagle Rock students to have the opportunity to research, write, illustrate, laminate, and bind books on environmental science to fill in gaps in a local elementary school library. “Rock ‘n’ Road” teaches students about geology, mathematics, and literature as they rock climb and perform service on trails.
Many service-learning projects take place in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, where students have recently studied invasive species and worked to remove them through direct eradication and public education. After completing their projects, students often have the opportunity to reflect on what they have learned by writing about their experiences in a portfolio. At Eagle Rock School, service-based environmental education enables formerly unsuccessful students to achieve academic and personal success by graduating from high school. In addition:
- Students gain a sense of purpose and self-esteem by doing meaningful work.
- Students learn that they can make a difference, and they are empowered by this knowledge.
- Students feel engaged in their community rather than antagonistic towards it.
- Students become more interested in school.
- Service-learning creates a lasting commitment among students to improve the quality of life for others and contribute to their communities.