At Eagle Rock School (ERS), there is a more concrete relationship between art and what’s traditionally considered “core curriculum.” Estes Park resident and ERS arts educator Cindy Elkins is currently teaching “Geometric Quilts” along with math fellow Helen Higgins. The class very clearly defines its objective to incorporate math and history into the instruction, not just art.
“This is a required class,” explained Elkins. After completing the five-week course (four two-hour classes per week), the students will have earned a half-credit in math and a half-credit in art. Elkins is staff at ERS; Higgins is participating through the school’s professional development center, working toward her licensure with the Colorado Department of Education through an ERS partnership with Public Allies, Inc.
“Eagle Rock’s mission challenges us to examine how to impact the national high school dropout rate,” Elkins said. “We want to engage the disengaged students and the professional development opportunities at ERS are top rated.”
Instructors are engaged, too — “I get to design curriculum, implement best teaching strategies, and partner up with other educators locally and around the country,” she said. “I have the greatest job ever.”
The road to her dream job wasn’t laid out in a straight line. Elkins grew up in Midlothian, a suburb of Richmond, Va., playing along the banks of the James River. This instilled an appreciation for being outdoors.
“Sweet magnolia blossoms and dogwood flowers are some of my favorite things from the south,” she said.
After high school, she pursued a degree in accounting — first at John Tyler Community College and then at the University of Richmond.
But “after examining my life choices, I knew I was not listening to my heart,” she said.
After two weeks visiting a friend who was attending Colorado Mountain College, she moved to Glenwood Springs “to find out what really made me tick as a human being.” There, she spent a couple of years skiing, creating art at a private school on a volunteer basis, and working in the rafting industry.
“I decided it was time to go back to college and pursue a degree in art education,” Elkins said. “It was the best choice ever for me.”
After graduating from Colorado State University (where she earned a BFA in fine art with a concentration in painting and a teaching license for grades K-12) she took a job at Estes Park Elementary School as the art teacher. The year was 1989, and Estes Park had become one of her favorite places after spending four years in Fort Collins.
“Estes and Hidden Valley Ski Resort were two of my favorite things,” she said. “So a job offer here was a never-look-back kind of deal.”
For 13 years she worked in the Estes Park school district teaching art for the elementary and middle schools and with the alternative education program in the high school before joining ERS.
“In my classroom (at Eagle Rock), I get to teach a wide variety of arts including painting, ceramics, stained and fused glass, printmaking, quilting and photography,” Elkins said. “All of my classes have literacy components and are connected to historical and cultural implications. Eagle Rock is a holistic approach to education and is very student-centered. ”
Created by the American Honda Motor Company, ERS is a residential alternative high school designed specifically for students who struggle in more traditional public or private schools. The first class of students graduated in 1995 and in the period since, ERS has won numerous awards for its approach to presenting value-driven education, which includes many of the same pursuits Elkins engages in personally. (Details about the school and the development center can be found a www.eaglerockschool.org)
“I have a passion for volunteering for our community,” she said. This includes “doing the tiles (a public art project installed in a local pedestrian tunnel), creating two flood-relief mud volleyball tournaments, participating in community theater, and doing river clean up.”
She recently logged her service hours and discovered she has given more than 1,360 hours of volunteer work in the Estes Valley. When Elkins first arrived in town, she taught classes at the Art Center of Estes Park and has served on their board of directors. Elkins is also trained in Restorative Justice practices and is part of the ERS Discipline Committee.
Advocating for and working with young people is one of her passions as well.
“I have a wonderful son and many other godchildren or young people who have adopted me for one reason or another,” Elkins said. “Estes is a great place to call home and many of them like to look me up to share a meal. Creating art (right now oil paintings), cooking, and walking on the lake with my dogs are some of my favorite things to do.”
In her “Geometric Quilting” class, Elkins addresses many of core value beliefs ERS embraces.
“At Eagle Rock, we use learning targets — what’s called an enduring understanding,” she said. “It’s what you hopefully will remember the rest of your life. Our enduring understanding (for this class) is: ‘I will understand that math, art, and history are part of the creative problem-solving process and culture of quilting.’ Everything works together.”
Part of the class culture includes self-awareness — like, how does the student learn best? What do they need to feel safe and empowered in class? By the end of the five weeks, students will have not only created a group quilt and individual quilts, they will learn geometry, vocabulary, history, traditional home economics, sociology, teamwork, and much more. They will take a trip to Golden to visit the Quilt Museum. They are required to write a paper on the math included in the projects they are working on and must write an artist’s statement.
“The philosophy of ERS is that we strive to engage the disengaged and look at how to really create relationships with our students,” she said. “We believe that everyone can learn and we look for ways to challenge and work with students so they can claim their education.”
She had a great experience in the Estes Park public school system, but one of the biggest differences between that and ERS is class size.
“We average 8-12 students in a class compared to the 25+/- in public school,” Elkins said.
But otherwise, she said, it’s like comparing apples to oranges.
“When I think of how American Honda Education Corporation has created an opportunity that is resource-rich for students who were not on track to graduate and has given us an opportunity to develop a community of learners, I cannot compare it to any other situation. The arts develop the whole person and spark pathways to creative problem solving,” said Elkins. “Arts education empowers the individual to communicate in many ways (and can) bridge language barriers…Creative problem solving is the future; for many it will be the catalyst to the next wave of jobs that will be developed. I believe that everything can be taught through the arts. The ability to use our whole minds well depends on creativity.”
Personally, she embraces the same practices she teaches in school, lending an authenticity to her instruction that students respond very well to.
“I create because I have to and I love it,” Elkins said. “I have a studio in my home and if I find myself not creating it makes me cranky. Art balances me emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.”
Elkins pointed out Estes Park’s arts community is unusually diverse for such a small town.
“The amount of talent and the different media and skills practiced here blows me away when I really pay attention,” she said. “We have a great opportunity to develop Estes as the Rocky Mountain arts destination. The arts could be on the forefront of our economy. There are many people passionate about developing the best mountain arts community imaginable here in Estes Park.”