Estes Park News – Around the Lake: Proud-pied April, Part One

by Robert Burkhardt

Winter 2016 walloped the Estes Valley with weeks of serious daily cold weather under gray skies flaunting wind-flung volleys of snow battering terra firma and sharp frost that punished exposed skin, numbing gloved fingers on slow-flexing hands.

Twenty-five years ago today I reported for work at what would become Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center. Lizzie and I came from San Francisco on the California Zephyr with Eileen, twenty-seven months, and Patrick, five months, to join others in realizing an incipient dream of American Honda Motor Company: demonstrate engaging curriculum and generative culture in a high school designed for adolescents unfamiliar with success while working collaboratively with secondary school partners across America on issues of reform, renewal and restructuring.

In late January winter’s spine fractured irrevocably as warming air sang suspicion of Spring. Soon dawns came earlier, dusks later, yet Winter wasn’t finished. Driveway puddles froze when thermometers sank with the sun; the woodpile shrank as we warmed ourselves indoors; raw winds raced across lawns.

Our first potential site fell through after a tumultuous hearing in Boulder. In August ‘91 we stumbled onto a nifty parcel off Dry Gulch Road that was secluded, accessible and transcendent. It took a year to gain ownership of the 640 acres; after placing 500 in a conservation easement with the Estes Valley Land Trust, we broke ground in September 1992. Six months later our staff of ten began countdown to Day One.

One day, almost imperceptibly, Spring stretched and yawned. The morning sun rose higher sooner, spilling full-face warmth onto countenances inured to harsh winds and probing cold.

Judy Gilbert held the dream job of coordinating the design of Eagle Rock’s early curriculum. Working with, among others, Michael Soguero and Garth Lewis, Judy and her team developed the five curricular expectations that, along with eight broad themes, centered and deepened school values. Our lingua franca championed intellectual discipline, service to others, cross-cultural understanding, creating and making healthy life choices, leadership for justice, environmental stewardship, effective communication, democratic governance and more.

As cold and snow ebbed deer grazed front lawns placidly, now lingering over tufts where a few weeks earlier they moved swiftly, warily, aiming to find what little nourishment grim winter furnished. They sauntered leisurely, at ease on terrain and patient in pursuit of grasses, chewing energetically at small bushes just outside living-room windows.

The first sixteen students arrived in September 1993 and immediately constructed beds they slept in. A structured two-day conversation reached consensus in answer to a question posed by John Oubre and Yee Ann Cho: “What constitutes a safe community?” With student-generated rules in place, ER-1 left for twenty-five days in the wilderness. They put the past behind, bonded as a group, and used the experience as a springboard into community life at Eagle Rock.

Steadily if intermittently, fragile softness danced and strengthened in warming air, harbinger of the coming season. Exhausted winter succumbed as Spring’s minions stirred. Early single pasque flowers and occasional serendipitous bluebirds will become battalions of wildflowers and fluttering friends as Summer advances into May and June.

“Reach up….stretch yourself!” I led morning exercise regularly, so students heard this admonition often; most chose to do that with their lives. Other ERS language included: find a need and fill it; leave this place better than the way you found it; you have no right to no opinion; live one life; what is the best obtainable version of the truth? We were simultaneously building community and choreographing a culture of respect.

March delivered more snow showers and power outages. Even though Spring arrived with the solstice, some wondered if winter would ever go away. “O ye of little faith…” April may be “the cruelest month,” yet buds will grace the Aspen trees, Elk will calve, and rubber ducks will float down the Big Thompson.

Activities and rituals grew organically into life at Eagle Rock: a daily Gathering of all staff and students (essentially an extended conversation about the nature of community, ending every day with live music); intramural sports every Wednesday morning (each House competes twice and referees once); Explore Week (a break in the middle of each Trimester when students travel or delve into interests such as digital mixed media, herbal remedies, tabla drumming, theater improv, hip-hop, straw-bale construction, etc.); Presentations of Learning (POLs), in which students demonstrate what they have learned and how they have grown during the trimester, followed by questions from a panel; KP (all students help prepare meals for the community); Magnificent Seven (the seven senior students assist staff with evening duty); and much more.

Twenty-plus years in, Eagle Rock is off to a good start. Transitions in leadership and decades of students have not diminished the school’s promise or delivery, nor American Honda Motor Company’s long-term commitment. My next column will feature voices of former students and how time at ERS impacted their lives.

Next Column: Lessons learned.

Estes Park. Nice town. Nice people.