Estes Park Trail Gazette – 25 years of learning at Eagle Rock School

By Nic WackerlyTrail-Gazette

As Eagle Rock School celebrates their 25 years of learning, they have reflected on the key learnings experienced with both the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center.

“We have been in a reflective mode in the last year, just in terms of what have we learned in the last 25 years,” Head of School Jeff Liddle said. “We have done that internally with some of our staff and leadership team and we did an alumni survey, … plus some exercises we have done with the board of directors.”

It is through this reflection that Eagle Rock School was able to generate a long list of learnings that have occurred over the past 25 years. This was then boiled down to a list of ten learning from the Eagle Rock School and five from the Professional Development Center.

American Honda President Toshiaki Mikoshiba and Eagle Rock Head of School Jeff Liddle break ground on new faculty housing.

American Honda President Toshiaki Mikoshiba and Eagle Rock Head of School Jeff Liddle break ground on new faculty housing. (Courtesy Photo)

“We are a small school of 72 students, boarding year round, so we learn a lot from working with those students who have been underserved in other schools and not successful, part of the reason we do that is to directly serve those students and give them an education,” Liddle said. “The other reason we do it is because we have a professional development center that works with schools all over the country and our work with these students helps us stay grounded in challenging issues and really learn about that.”

The ten lessons derived from working with students at Eagle Rock School include: a shared culture, engaging the disengaged, asking more of your students, the art of civic engagement, students taking ownership of their own learning and development, a holistic approach to growth, developing trusting relationships, embracing differences in people and in thought, a sense of community and the voice of a student has value in teacher development.

Just reading through the ten lessons gives one an understanding of what is important to Eagle Rock School. One very unique feature is the holistic approach to growth. This starts for students during their first trimester at Eagle Rock School.

“There is an integration or orientation to the school culture that helps people from the beginning understand ‘oh I signed up for something that is more than what it was like at my public school,’ and the 24 day wilderness trip really is the beginning of that,” Liddle said.

After being at school for around a week, the new students go on a 24 day wilderness trip where they have a holistic experience. Students take their intellectual experience from the classroom and recognize what they do not have an understanding of or need help with from instructors or peers through the immersive wilderness experience. It allows the student to create a framework for when they are in the next challenging situation, Liddle said.

Civic engagement is another key learning that is a major focus at Eagle Rock School.

“High school education should not just provide technical opportunity, in other words, I can be prepared for college, be prepared for the workforce, but…if we are in a democratic society we need to know how to operate inside that context,” Liddle said. “For us, it has to do with student voice and allowing for different opportunities for students to have a voice inside our community.”

Students at Eagle Rock School run gatherings, have input on hirings and policies and discipline, Liddle said. There is also a community service point of civic engagement, where service is integrated into the academic program, including working with students at Estes Park Elementary School through tutoring Spanish and English.

Over the last 25 years, there has also been key learning from the Professional Development Center.

“Through our Professional Development Center we are working with other schools that are typically underfunded, underserved and underresourced, around the country who are dealing with a similar demographic, we have a different kind of credibility with those schools because we are doing the work on our own school,” Liddle said.

The five lessons from the Professional Development Center deal with their experiences supporting other school around the country. These include context is everything, learning from the inside out, focus matters, asset-based approaches stick and inspiration is an ongoing pursuit.

Learning from the inside out has been an important key for the Professional Development Center. The work that they do is job-embedded or work based, where they go into a school and look at what a school is already doing and facilitate different protocols to help strengthen what the school does well, Liddle said.

Focus matters has also been a big piece for the Professional Development Center. They have learned that they are most effective and have the most impact when they focus on the implementation stage of change, and making sure what they do sticks well. Part of that is another key learning: inspiration is an ongoing pursuit. The Professional Development Center has found that the schools they work with need continued support to help implement changes and make sure they stick, Liddle said.

Even though Eagle Rock School has been reflecting on the last 25 years, they are excited about what the future will bring.

“We are working on a campus master plan, the idea there is to build some more buildings, they are mostly faculty housing,” Liddle said. “That is going to help us programmatically, we want more people on campus working and living in the community, it also helps us with the affordable, accessible housing issue and to recruit and retain a really diverse staff.”

Through the Professional Development Center, the future is focused on exploring networking through technology to try practices with multiple schools instead of just at Eagle Rock School, Liddle said.