NASSP Leadership for Student Activities – Countering Cruelty

Creating a school environment in which all students feel safe and accepted as part of the school community involves trust and ownership on the part of the students. At Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, CO, hazing, harassment, and bullying are rare because students feel as though they are a part of something bigger and that their voice is not only valued, it_s an integral part of the operation of the school.

Robert Burkhardt, Head of School explains “At Eagle Rock School_s inception, two founding staff members, John Oubre, then director of students, and Yee-Ann Cho, then admissions associate, parted the two ceiling-to-floor plastic curtains hanging in the middle of our lodge, which was under construction, and met with our first cohort of students. The first question posted to the student community on the first day was, _What constitutes a safe community?_ A long discussion followed and two days later the group emerged with a covenant signed by everyone: the non-negotiables. One of the non-negotiables includes physical or verbal harassment or violence.”

Educational Challenges

Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center is both a school for high school age students and a professional development center for adults, particularly educators. The school is a year-round, residential, and full-scholarship school that enrolls youth ages 15-17 from around the United States in an innovative learning program. The students share two characteristics: They did not expect to graduate from their previous high school (and may have dropped out or been expelled) but they have a passion about making changes in their lives. Otherwise, they are a very diverse population. The professional development center hosts educators from around the world who wish to study how to re-engage these students in learning, keep them in school, get them graduated, and help them go on to make a difference in the world.

A few things make hazing, harassment, and bullying a rarity at Eagle Rock. Some focal points include creating a community of learners, a set of guiding principles (8 + 5 = 10), challenging new students with a wilderness trip, personal growth as well as academic growth, and service (being _of use_). Most of our success comes from putting students in control over their own educational experience.

Guiding Principles

The touchstone for everything at Eagle Rock is our set of guiding principles that we term 8 + 5 = 10. It_s bad math but good education and these principles don_t simply appear in a handbook or on a plaque. They are truly embedded in the culture of the school. They include eight themes broken into two broad categories:

Individual Integrity: Intellectual Discipline, Physical Fitness, Spiritual Development, Aesthetic Expression.

Citizenship: Service to Others, Cross-cultural Understanding, Democratic Governance, and Environmental Stewardship.

Following the eight themes are five expectations that include:

_ Developing an expanding knowledge base

_ Communicating effectively

_ Creating and making healthy life choices

_ Participating as an engaged global citizen

_ Providing leadership for justice.

The last piece includes the Ten Commitments students make when enrolling at Eagle Rock. Those are:

_ Live in respectful harmony with others.

_ Develop mind, body, and spirit.

_ Learn to communicate in speech and writing.

_ Serve he Eagle Rock and other communities.

_ Become a steward of the planet.

_ Make healthy personal choices.

_ Find, nurture, and develop the artist within.

_ Increase capacity to exercise leadership for justice.

_ Practice citizenship and democratic living.

_ Devise an enduring moral and ethical code.

Orientation in the Wilderness

Jeff Liddle, Director of Curriculum explains, “Another powerful component of our students_ experience includes our new student orientation program. Our wilderness program places students in unique situations that provide for valuable learning experiences during students_ first trimester with us. This learning is made possible by placing students in a new, unfamiliar setting (wilderness) where they must rely on each other to succeed and where the usual distractions of adolescent life are absent, such as TV, fast food, drugs/alcohol, cars, malls, and make-up.

Underlying this novel setting and providing the basis for change is a foundation of trust, a constructive level of anxiety, and the student_s perception of the wilderness as being riddled with danger and risk. Overcoming the unique problems that a wilderness trip typically offers requires a cooperative effort among all group members. Putting together the _wilderness puzzle_ of problems leads to feelings of accomplishment, higher self-esteem, and feelings of personal responsibility for self, others, and the natural environment. In the end, the skills that students develop on the course are the same skills that they will need to successfully contribute to the Eagle Rock community and ultimately to society as a whole.

Courses are generally 23-25 days in length due to the fact that it usually takes an individual about 3-4 weeks to develop a habit or change a behavior. We believe that 21 days is the minimum amount of time we can spend in the field to effect positive changes. Most students don_t become aware of or start working on changing behaviors until days 5-8 of the course, so the trick for us is to have students continue the work they started on the wilderness trip back on campus.

Actually, new students are not considered Eagle Rock students until they successfully complete their first trimester. The entire first trimester is really focused on giving students all the skills they will need to succeed. When students first arrive on campus they have been exposed to 8+5=10 yet they tend not to fully understand it. The first trimester is a _rite of passage_ of sorts that gives students the opportunity to adjust to the school and to prove to the Eagle Rock community that they have begun to internalize 8+5=10.

Once the students have completed the wilderness course and the remainder of the trimester, they will have had to emotionally engage in 8+5=10 and not just memorize the concepts. By the end of the first trimester most students are ready to participate in academic classes without being overwhelmed with 8+5=10 and the general flow of the school schedule.

What It Takes to Succeed

While on the wilderness course, students are working on skills related to 8+5=10 in the following categories: Leadership, Communication, Compassion, Responsibility, Knowledge Base, Healthy Life Choices, Fortitude and Perseverance, and Authenticity/Overcoming Self-Deception. Most new students arrive at Eagle Rock not even knowing what many of these categories mean let alone that they have things to learn in each area.

What we look for in a student who has the potential to succeed is their willingness to look critically at their behaviors and work to improve them. Both instructors and other students throughout the course give verbal feedback to students individually and in groups. In addition, peers and instructors complete formal written evaluations in the middle of the course and at the end.

If at the end of the course, the student is deficient in certain areas or is resistant to working on change, then he or she is given additional opportunity to work on their issues. The form of this opportunity can be anything from the student demonstrating compassion or leadership back on campus to taking the entire wilderness course over again to being disenrolled from the school. Simply completing the course is not a guarantee that the student will be prepared to take academic classes. So, it is in the student_s best interest to work hard on behavioral change while on the wilderness course.”

Students at Eagle Rock are well known at school. We are intentional about creating many different heterogeneous groupings at Eagle Rock. We do not label students as freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and every class has different ability levels and ages. In addition to classes, student residential house groupings and advisories are other examples. Each morning we begin with a community-wide meeting termed The Gathering. It_s a practical way to build community at the beginning of each day. Additionally, on Tuesday evenings we alternative between a Community Meeting, Gender Meeting, and House Meeting where the entire community comes together.

We have a strong student voice at Eagle Rock and give students many opportunities to practice the leadership we encourage them to use. Students sit in on our faculty meetings, serve as new student and faculty mentors, help with hiring new staff, and assist our staff with the typical duty responsibilities necessary at any boarding school such as running student activities and taking part in curfew bed checks. We find that it_s a matter of trust and ownership. When students feel as though they are a part of something bigger and when their voice is not only valued, it_s expected, we find that they do something that is rare for a high school: they hold each other accountable and don_t rely on faculty for discipline.


Copyright © 2006, National Association of Secondary School Principals. For more information on NASSP products and services to promote excellence in middle level and high school leadership, visit Reprinted with permission.


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