Independent School Magazine – Perched on the Future’s Edge

At first glance, Eagle Rock School, with its gorgeous setting in the Colorado Rockies and its $17 million facility on 650 idyllic acres, appears to be just another great looking independent school. But a closer look reveals a 10-year-old institution reaching out in new and engaging directions in independent education.

How is it different? First of all, Eagle Rock is the brain-child of the American Honda Corporation. While operating independently, the school is funded completely (and quietly) by Honda. All of its students attend tuition-free. Second, while the school’s primary focus is on offering an innovative program for ninety at-risk teenagers from across the country, it also serves as a vibrant professional development center for teachers and administrators interested in serving this population. In a given year, 2,000 educators will come to Eagle Rock to observe and take part in the program.

When Honda decided to start a school, says Lois Easton, director of the professional development center, it knew it wanted to commit its money to education. But it also insisted on significant outreach. “Honda did not want to limit itself to educating the students at the school. It wanted to reach as many ‘drop out’ and ‘throw away’ students as possible and saw a way to do that through professional development. The center depends on the school as a living laboratory into which visitors can be immersed, not only learning cognitively how to make changes but understanding on a deep emotional level why those changes are so necessary.”

Robert Burkhardt, Jr., the head of Eagle Rock, added that the professional development program has turned out to be far more significant than first envisioned. “It’s the tail that wags the dog,” he said.

It’s exactly this mix of a deep and abiding public mission, innovative program, and corporate backing on behalf of at-risk kids that attracted my attention. As the coordinator of a teacher training program at San Francisco State University I’d been focusing increasingly on innovative experiential educational programs that were effectively reaching adolescents; Eagle Rock appeared to epitomize the best of these programs and I wanted to know more.

At the invitation of Robert Burkhardt, I arrived at Eagle Rock for the first time in the fall of 1998. Like everyone who visits the school, I was awed by the setting, especially in comparison to inner-city San Francisco. But you quickly learn that this is much more than a pretty place. I found myself getting caught up in the hard work and dedication of the staff members as they translated the school’s vision into daily life. I was also deeply touched by many of the students all of whom came from troubled worlds and all of whom expressed a desire to use their time at Eagle Rock to turn their lives around. You can’t help but be impressed. Their stories are moving, and they help define Eagle Rock.

Take Sweets Baldwin, for instance. She came out of a tough school system in Trenton, New Jersey, and has transformed herself from a troublemaker on the verge of dropping out into a potential future leader for her community. She was recently honored by the AAUW as the “Outstanding Young Woman of the Year” in the Estes Valley and hopes to attend Spelman College after her graduation in December.

Melvin “Sajah” Rowland, a student from the South Bronx, confided to me, “I saw my best friend get gunned down by a gang…I made up my mind to turn my life around before it was too late.” In an e-mail exchange a few months later he told me that he was reading Aristotle, Plato, and Howard Gardner – in his hunger to understand life better. Now, after a short leave from Eagle Rock to work through some personal problems (not a unique experience for Eagle Rock students), he is heading back, with a new awareness of Eagle Rock’s value to him and determined to graduate.

There is also the international story of Haimonot and Loula Tesfai. They were minutes from execution as political refugees in Eritrea before a wealthy relative bought their release. When I first visited, Haimonot was one of Eagle Rock’s most charismatic leaders and a dancer. Now, after a year with Up With People, she has begun her undergraduate work at Antioch College. Loula, deeply engaged in the writing of Toni Morrison and in her own writing when we first met, is now a sophomore at Luther College.

It helps the students, of course, to have such a remarkable leader as Robert Burkhardt. The director of the San Francisco Conservation Corps, a program promoting adolescent service work, when Honda first approached him in 1990, Burkhardt’s unusual and interesting professional history includes the California Conservation Corps, the Pickle Family Circus (he sees his work as a juggler, roustabout, and barker as all helpful in his present work at Eagle Rock), a stint as a plumber, and one as head of a “free” school in San Francisco. In our first meeting he introduced me to Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, a great guidebook for all of us who care for children daily. That night I watched him put his arms around a teary eyed student. Then at the community meeting the following morning, he warned students that if any are seen on the scaffolding of a building in progress “you’ll be out of here tomorrow…try me!”

Along with Burkhardt is Tom Dean, co-founder of the school and executive director of the American Honda Education Corporation. Dean was an educator first, He had taught for six years as a high school teacher and six more at UCLA as a teacher educator, before Honda hired him in 1979. I sat next to him late on a Thursday night last December watching an all-star student basketball game while he shared stories of his frequent visits to Eagle Rock in his role as the chief link between Honda and the school. He noted how much he loved his job and especially the time at Eagle Rock. It shows.

On paper, Eagle Rock’s program is intriguing. Instead of the traditional 180-day school year, Eagle Rock runs for 240 days. The year is divided into trimesters with three-week wilderness experiences sandwiched between. There is a great deal of emphasis on outdoor education for the challenges it presents and to help instill a sense of commitment to something greater than oneself. While the academic program is rigorous and challenging (and creative), Eagle Rock is more focused on character development. Most of these students have led hard and difficult lives and have been marginalized to the point where it would be easy to step out of society. They are that close. Eagle Rock works hard to bring them back into the fold, which is why it requires 500 hours of community service and finds numerous other ways to encourage students to be responsible members of the Eagle Rock community. Students, for instance, prepare all the dinners. They are deeply involved in their choices of courses and activities. The hope is that students will make healthy life choices.

During my first visit I spent much of my time visiting classes and noted that for all its emphasis on the body and the spirit, the development of the mind is a central part of Eagle Rock’s curriculum. The academic substance dealing with the Holocaust in one social studies class was as rigorous as any I’d seen, while the modes of student presentation were highly innovative. One student created an interactive video, another made an effective Powerpoint presentation. There were extended, informed, and intelligent discussions. A French class, taught only in French, engaged in a simulated L’Orly airport arrival. The math class creatively linked trigonometry to the construction of a new building on campus.

One of the most impressive parts of the curriculum is what Eagle Rock calls the Presentations of Learning (POLs). Students are required to give a POL at the end of each trimester. The public presentations, with accompanying essays, of their learning, both personal and substantive, are offered to a group of outside panelists: educators, laypersons, students, and staff. Afterwards, the students engage in dialogue with the panelists. It’s not unlike defending one’s dissertation. As Lois Easton, director of professional development, noted, “It is through these POLs that Eagle Rock’s approach to learning becomes apparent. We can talk all we want about what we do to help students learn, but in the POLs the evidence of student learning is right there, right in front of us and all the educators who’ve come to witness them. As students try to make the case that they’ve learned, they solidify their learning and illustrate for visiting educators what learning is all about.”

watched were impressive, but two, by David Nguyen and Haimonot Tesfai, were knockouts. I was amazed by the students’ classroom presence, and their presentation skills, integrating oral and visual information, including a sophisticated use of computer technology, with physical movement and audience interaction. It struck me that they were better at this than most of the student teachers I worked with. I mentioned this when I met with Robert Burkhardt the next day. “Robert, you are training these students to be teachers!” He responded with a smile and acknowledged this as one of his unannounced goals.

Leaving the viewing room some hours later, I noticed that the school was still very active. It brought to mind Anthropologist Angeles Arrien’s description of four rivers that help us avoid becoming spiritually dead: the rivers of challenge, inspiration, surprise, and wonder.1 At Eagle Rock these rivers seem to fill every day for every student.

Months later, still digesting the immense impact of my first visit to Eagle Rock on my work as an educator, I received news of the tragedy in Littleton, just 90 miles from Estes Park. And in the ensuing months I spent considerable time exploring the differences between the two schools, primarily because Columbine appeared to me to be typical of the best high schools in the best communities in the U.S.

The irony didn’t escape me. Despite the fact that many adolescents at Eagle Rock are dealing with anger, alienation, and lives of violence and crime, I couldn’t imagine them acting violently towards each other or treating each other with disregard. I attribute this to the fact that, while Eagle Rock has student groups and even a clique or two, the ethos is one of community. The carefully designed racial and ethnic diversity combined with a focus on community and one’s responsibility to it, has created a school where differences are appreciated. It brings people together, rather than drive them apart. Eagle Rock also provides a formal outlet for frustrations – a daily town meeting where problems are dealt with and verbal violence is responded to in the presence of the whole community.

The lessons are clear. If you build a meaningful, challenging, empowering shared experience that involves continual calculated risk taking, students will neither feel nor act violently towards each other. Screenwriter Stephen Schiff, who grew up in Littleton, wrote in The New York Times2about how Littleton had lost a sense of place and a sense of character, replaced by what Schiff called “Mallland,” a world in which “meaning evaporates…a world of monotonous getting and spending, [in which] the need to shake things up, to make a mark…any mark – may overpower everything else, including sense.” Schiff went on to say that “children who grow up with a sense of place and character know the difference between gunfire on television and real gunfire,” and that the Littleton violence “may have stemmed from a terrible absence – a loss of perspective that might be one of the unforeseen consequences of a loss of place.”

It is important, too, to note that the development of individual character at Eagle Rock takes place in a context of serving the common good, improving society. Thus the commitments, expectations, and themes of the school include: living in respectful harmony with men and women of all races and religions, devising an enduring personal moral and ethical code, participating as engaged global citizens, practicing leadership for justice, becoming environmental stewards of the planet, and engaging in service to others.

Commenting on this central mission of Eagle Rock, Burkhardt recalled the lines of T.S. Eliot near the end of “The Waste Land,” “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” He then says, “I sometimes think of our work as teachers as shoring fragments against ruins. The daily global litany of tragedy and human sorrow is real, but it should not paralyze us or diminish our purpose to do good in this world. Eagle Rock affirms that the ‘fragments’ can do more than gather dust. As we create culture, we help ourselves and others to make sense of the world and shape it for the better. This is a very cheerful prospect, and it sustains me in my work.”

If my first visit to Eagle Rock was primarily to observe and experience the life of students, my second was to experience the critically important professional development component. For this visit I brought with me Reno Taini, a former California Teacher of the Year who directs the Jefferson Community Environmental Education Program in Daly City, just outside of San Francisco. Reno’s program for adolescents at risk has much in common with Eagle Rock, the development of individual responsibility, engagement in the world, service learning, wilderness treks, among them. I want Reno to see the richly developed Eagle Rock curriculum first hand, especially the POL process.

This time around, Reno and I were panelists, and we were also part of an extended dialogue concerning the POLs with approximately twenty other panelists at the Professional Development Center. The eclectic mix of folks represented a broad range of experiences. We participated in a number of panels; all were above the norm that I ‘d expect from most college students and some were deeply moving in their open sharing of challenging personal journeys. The panelists reconvened between presentations to discuss the process and its educational implications, a rich discussion that gave me a number of ideas for my teacher training.

Later we attended the graduation POLs, which represent the culmination of years of personal and substantive growth. They were even more impressive. Each one surpassed even the high standard set by the ones I’d viewed on tape. One young woman invited her mother to be a panelist and, as part of her journey, described the way in which their relationship has developed, closing with her recognition that she would have never made it from her rebellious, drug-filled early adolescence to this day of triumph if not for her mother’s support and encouragement.

Back in Daly City this past spring, Reno excitedly introduced POLs for the first time to his students, and he and I also convened a panel on Eagle Rock in our teacher training class.

The infusion process is at work. Most of my students will integrate elements of the Eagle Rock program into their own curriculum and instruction. This is what the Eagle Rock professional development component is all about. When I return this fall I plan to bring Dennis Chaconas, the new superintendent of the Oakland public schools, hoping he’ll integrate the Eagle Rock model in Oakland’s program.

Eagle Rock is not Utopia. It’s still working things out in the community. It loses students every year (though they are all encouraged to reapply). But it is a place that tells us that there may still be a green light at the end of the educational dock. In its sophisticated blend of creative subject area curriculum, outdoor education, active learning, technology, and service learning, its core values, its creation of an intimate community of teaching and learning, its far reaching integrated professional development process, and in its exemplary corporate partnership, it stands as both a model and a resource for educators all across the country. Responding almost intuitively to the massive social and technological changes impacting our youth, it is a school on the edge of the future.

And as I look forward to what is becoming my annual journey of renewal to Eagle Rock, I carry with me Robert Burkhardt’s most recent thoughts on the school. Referring to lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses where Ulysses contemplates his son, Burkhardt reflects “The task of Telemachus, says his father, is ‘by slow prudence to make mild a rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees subdue them to the useful and the good.'” This eloquently describes our work at Eagle Rock. I am always seeking to find what will be ‘useful and good’ for today’s students, in hope that I might impel them towards self-discovery and the skills and attitudes requisite to making a positive difference in the world. It’s early yet, but I find great joy in what Eagle Rock graduates are doing. As I contemplate what they will do in the coming decades, my heart sings.

Mark Phillips coordinates teacher training at San Francisco State University.


  1. Angeles Arrien, The Four-Fold Way, San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1993.
  2. Stephen Schiff, “Littleton, Then and Now,” The New York Times, April 22, 1999.

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