Estes Park Trail Gazette – Finding a Solution to America_s Education Problem

The recent report released by the Alliance for Excellent Education points out that “in the Denver metropolitan area, 8,769 students dropped out from the Class of 2008. These high school dropouts did so at a great cost not only to themselves but also to their communities. Reducing the number of dropouts by 50 percent for just this single high school class would result in tremendous economic benefits to the Denver region. The following are three examples of the economic impact that these 4,385 new graduates would have on Denver and its surrounding area:

1. Increased Wages. By earning their diplomas—and in many cases, continuing their education—these new high school graduates would together earn nearly $69 million in additional wages over the course of an average year compared to their likely earnings without a diploma.

2. Increased Human Capital. After earning their high school diplomas, many new graduates would not stop there. An estimated 77 percent of these students are projected to continue their education after high school, some earning as high as a PhD or other professional degree.

3. Additional Tax Revenue. As these new graduates’ incomes grow, local tax revenues will also increase. Annual state and local property, income, and sales tax revenue would grow by nearly $8 million during the average year as the result of increased spending and higher salaries.”

Nationally, American schools fail to graduate 1.2 million students each year and it’s costing the country billions in unearned wages, taxes, and productivity. But the solution for these kids and the country can be found within the walls of our non-traditional schools.

While saddled by the challenges of managing a growing disengaged student body, this nation’s school systems must search for a way to prevent a generation from failing.

Studies have shown that successful education begins with the establishment of a sense of community within a school, where students clearly understand the role they play in developing and maintaining core values. In this type of setting, students, teachers, and staff share in a community of learning, responsibility, and trust, this encourages students to re-engage with education.

When Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center, a non-traditional alternative high school, was established in the mountains of Colorado sixteen years ago, we knew that one school could not change the landscape of American education, but we could begin to move our nation’s collective mindset about failing students away from managing problems and toward creating environments that foster engagement and success.

At Eagle Rock the student body is composed of youth who have either dropped out or are on their way to dropping out of high school. For many this is the last stop on the road to redemption and their opportunity to receive a quality education. Many students arrive at Eagle Rock from places where they feel the struggle to survive is an individual and daily battle. We provide them with a second chance that begins with an emphasis on the importance of community.

Our effort to engage the disengaged is not feel good confidence-building. It includes an academic program that is both focused and demanding, structured around interactive, interdisciplinary project-based learning. We support this challenging curriculum with close-knit relationships among students, teachers, and staff. Every staff member works directly with students and the entire school community meets every morning in a gathering space. School governance is thoroughly democratic and obligates every member of the community to have a voice.

This openness is grounded in self-discipline. Every student learns the values and expectations of Eagle Rock School and commits them to memory – with a focus on individual integrity and citizenship, making positive life choices and living in respectful harmony with others. Just as important, every student contributes 500 hours of service per year to community service. Over time students internalize school values and expectations and thereby take ownership of their futures.

In our effort to encourage and enable schools across the country to learn from the lessons of Eagle Rock School, we work with and mentor schools to share this experience through developmental opportunities for educators who are interested in new integrative approaches to education. For thousands of visitors each year, the school’s Professional Development Center provides space, time and facilitation for educators to consider an approach to schooling that focuses on creating a community committed to the learning and success of adolescents.

A few year’s ago a former Eagle Rock instructor founded a small alternative high school housed in a larger, comprehensive high school in New York City. Understanding how institutional structures could create barriers to student achievement, his goal was to create an educational institution that would shift the focus away from managing the movement and behavior of students to focusing on building relationships and re-engaging them in the educational process. Using Eagle Rock’s model of focusing on core values and creating a sense of community, he succeeded in establishing a school with a graduation rate twice that of the parent comprehensive high school.

These pockets of success arise in schools that have redesigned their approach to education, beginning with principles that promote building a community of learners, and a belief that all students can succeed in the right learning environment. This sense of community, along with the development of shared values, creates the stable relationships that are essential to an effective educational system.

Robert Burkhardt is Head of School at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center, a tuition-free high school and learning center for educators interested in education renewal and reform located in Estes Park, Colorado.

For more information about Eagle Rock, visit us at

While saddled by the challenges of managing a growing disengaged student body, this nation