New York Times Sunday Magazine – The High School at the End of the Road

In August 1996, Jerry McGinnes, a sulking, brooding 18-year-old, awaited sentencing in a Fort Collins, Colo., courtroom. His tattoos — the sun and a cross on his forearms and unintelligible markings on his knuckles, a result of a drunken evening — lent Jerry an air of defiance. The Juvenile Court magistrate, Joseph Coyte, asked if he had anything to say. Jerry, who had dropped out of school, had been on probation for stealing a car when he cut off his ankle monitor and fled for San Diego to live with his sister. There, he smoked marijuana and hung out until deciding he’d had enough of being on the run. He then turned himself in. The prosecutor asked that the judge send him to a youth prison. Jerry rose; his hands, manacled and shaking, clutched a penciled four-page letter he had written. He read it aloud.

Magistrate Coyte,

About four months ago, I decided to move to San Diego. While I was there I was exposed to the hole [sic] drug scene for a while it was fun, but it soon got old and reality began to set in. I decided to come back and turn my self in.. . .

Your Honor I’m asking you to grant my wish to attend school at Eagle Rock High School.. . . This is it I can choose my future from here. Graduate from Eagle Rock or live my life behind locked doors.. . .

Thank you your Honor


Jerry E. McGinnes

Judge Coyte made a deal: Jerry could attend Eagle Rock, but if he dropped out he faced the possibility of prison.

Eagle Rock School, lodged on 640 acres bordering Colorado’s majestic Rocky Mountain National Park, is nestled in a valley at the bottom of a steep, winding road. Like sentries, four mountain ridges stand guard over the campus. The effect, not unintentional, is that you feel protected from the pulls and temptations of the outside world, no small matter given the school’s population: kids who, for whatever reason, haven’t been able to conform to the more traditional setting of a public school. Some have dropped out or were regularly truant or simply uninterested in their studies. A handful, including Jerry McGinnes, have been in trouble with the law. A considerable number have taken refuge in drugs and drink. They are what some people might impoliticly refer to as throwaway kids, teen-agers who skate along the margins of mainstream society. It is a swelling population. Nationwide, 485,000 teen-agers dropped out of school last year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In cities like Chicago and New York, barely one of every two entering freshmen graduates in four years. And these numbers don’t include the multitudes who crawl into class indifferent, tired and just plain angry. The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development has estimated that one in four young people — or seven million — is ”extremely vulnerable to multiple high-risk behaviors and school failure.”

This story might feel familiar — tough-love school tucked away in the wilderness turns wayward kids around — except that Eagle Rock, set up by a major corporation and run by a former hippie, is as singular as the landscape. At a time when so much of the discussion about education is centered on standards and testing, Eagle Rock has focused on personal growth and building community. At a time when schools are expelling a growing number of students as a result of zero-tolerance policies, Eagle Rock is embracing those same kids. Most leave with a moral compass and a piercing inquisitiveness. And so this still-fledgling school — it’s five years old — has caught the eye of educators around the country.

My introduction to Eagle Rock was at the daily morning gathering in the main lodge, where the school’s 69 students find a space on the carpeted floor fronting a stone hearth. They wear the defiant icons of teen-agedom: nose rings, mohawks, sagging jeans, bandannas, unlaced high-tops and platform shoes. The early-morning sun that streams through the windows warms the groggy adolescent bodies, as does the fact that the kids are wrapped in each other’s arms. Some have their heads in friends’ laps. One girl massages the shaved head of a boy. A boy combs the curls of the girl seated in front of him. At first glance, Eagle Rock, as one teacher said to me, appears to be ”a very quaint, kind of 1960’s touchy-feely type place.” They’re kids from Chicago’s public housing, from the relatively privileged burg of Boulder and from a Wisconsin Indian reservation. A computer hacker and a gang member, a cowboy who is a recovering alcoholic and a football player who lost his bearings after busting his knee. But their commonality is simple: they are kids who couldn’t, didn’t, wouldn’t — you pick the verb — fit in at their public schools.

First impressions matter little here. As I sat in at that morning gathering, noting the frequent hugs and oft-repeated idioms — ”outside my comfort zone” was one of the more recurrent — I chafed at this feel-good approach to communal living. But as I soon learned, it masks a painstakingly considered philosophy of education.

Robert Burkhardt, the school’s director and one of its primary architects, sits at the foot of the hearth. At 57, the former high-school and college swimmer has retained his solid build. Burkhardt lives on campus with his wife and two young children, so his presence is a constant, and the students compete for his enveloping embraces and dread his disapproving glares. This day, his attire — V-neck sweater, chinos and Vibram-soled topsiders — seemed a far cry from his days running a free school in San Francisco in the early 1970’s. It would be too easy, though, to define Burkhardt by this well-traveled path since he is also a Shakespearean scholar and Princeton graduate.

Burkhardt had been directing the San Francisco Conservation Corps, a program that promotes service work among youth, when in 1990, American Honda approached him about helping to develop a school in the Rocky Mountains. Honda, which had been doing business in this country for 30 years, wanted to expand its philanthropic efforts and, after much deliberation, believed it could best contribute to American education, and more specifically assist teen-agers who have become disengaged from school. There is surprisingly little out there. Traditionally, parents who could afford it might ship their children off to military school; for the less fortunate, there are the alternative schools, which are often nothing more than a storefront and a bank of computers. And of course, there are special-education classes, frequently a dumping ground for emotionally uncentered teen-agers. So, at a cost of $17 million, Honda built Eagle Rock, a resortlike campus that in addition to six housing units includes a gym, complete with basketball court, weight room and swimming pool; a full-length soccer field; three classroom buildings; a main office, and the all-purpose lodge, where the kids eat, watch TV and attend the morning gatherings. Honda still invests $3.5 million a year, guaranteeing free tuition for each student.

Burkhardt, whose career has also involved stints as a circus juggler, a plumber, a high-school teacher and a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran, had a clear vision for the school. Given his belief in experiential learning, Burkhardt sends newly arriving students off on a three-week wilderness expedition. In an effort to cultivate a sense of community, each teen-ager averages 500 hours of service both on and off campus each year. An environmental-science class called Riverwatch measured the health of the local Big Thompson River for the state’s Division of Wildlife. But Eagle Rock’s most distinctive characteristic — and what has drawn educators there — is Burkhardt’s effort to create community, a place where students take responsibility for one another and for themselves. This necessitated keeping the school small (it can handle 96 students) as well as teaching values, a loaded concept in a political climate that associates building character with religious moralism.

”Schools say they don’t want religious values or ethical values because that’s the province of the family,” he told me one day over lunch. ”They beguile themselves on that. Every school has values. Where’s your hall pass? What’s the value behind that? I don’t trust you to walk down the halls and go to the bathroom. So what happens when I don’t trust you? Well, your response is, ‘I’ll give you something not to trust me about,’ which is where so many of our students came from.” What most strikes visitors to the school is the students’ sense of belonging and purpose, traits not typical of whirling, self-absorbed adolescents.

Consider the morning gathering. Burkhardt asked if there were any announcements. Mat Kasper, a refugee from a New Jersey prep school who was decked out in sport coat and penny loafers, along with a ring through his chin, raised his hand to apologize to Kevin Skipper, an African-American boy from Brentwood, Calif. As a joke, Mat had shut off his housemate’s alarm clock, making him miss the weekly 6:30 A.M. three-mile run. A petite girl raised her hand next, and confessed that she didn’t rise for the morning jog, and so pledged to run it that night at 9, her earliest block of free time. (”There are no secrets at Eagle Rock,” Burkhardt later told me.) And finally, to outstretched arms Burkhardt threw used paperbacks, from Rita Mae Brown’s ”Rubyfruit Jungle” to ”A Death in the Family,” by James Agee. Jerry McGinnes, reclining on the floor, rose briefly to snare a copy of Orwell’s ”1984.”

Jerry was not well liked at Eagle Rock — at least at the beginning. ”Jerry was a royal pain,” Burkhardt remembered. ”He didn’t much care about other people. Is there a word between violent and vicious?” In his first few weeks at the school, Jerry and some other students hiked Twin Sisters peak nearby, a four-and-a-half-mile steep climb. One of the girls in the group, Monique, stopped every 10 minutes for water. It frustrated Jerry, who is built of gristle and was unaffected by the high altitude. At the summit, it started to rain and turn cold, so Jerry urged everyone to snap their photos and get the hell down the mountain. In their rush, Monique twisted her ankle, slowing down the group even more. Turning to one of the other guys, he suggested, half-jokingly, that they push her off the ledge.

And not too much later, Jerry and some other boys named their group after a rap song that referred to women derisively. They carved the names of girls they didn’t like on a stick, and soon word of the list got out. At that point, Burkhardt wasn’t sure Jerry would last. Not every student who enters Eagle Rock is as clearly agitated and troubled as Jerry, but almost all arrive with the view that learning is nothing more than a torturous rite of passage. So, how to engage these students — both in the school community and in the classroom? To understand Eagle Rock’s educational philosophy you must look no farther than the artifacts scattered about Burkhardt’s alcove. Below his desk lies a box of tattered paperbacks to hand out to students, as well as a pair of Nike high-tops (he plays on one of the intramural basketball teams), his trumpet and a pair of ice skates. The shelves above his desk are lined with books, from four biographies of Gandhi to Stanley Lombardo’s new translation of the ”Iliad.” ”Instruct by pleasing,” he says, referring to the educator Homer Lane, who once wrote that we make moral progress when we’re happy.

The school year, which runs the full 12 months, is divided into trimesters, during which students take four to six classes, all of them imaginatively titled and pieced together. In one class, appropriately named Beloved, students spent 12 weeks reading Toni Morrison’s novel, as well as essays on slavery and on creative writing. In another class, Cabin, Sweet Cabin, students rebuilt a turn-of-the-century homestead (a little math coupled with some carpentry) while also learning about that historical period. Once students feel they have mastered their studies, they petition for graduation, and as a result commencement ceremonies can occur at the end of any trimester. There are no grades and few tests, and a student’s maturation is considered almost equally with his or her academic progress. A gifted student who had met the academic requirements for graduation was asked to return for an additional trimester because the staff felt that she was socially immature.

One afternoon as I walked through the lodge I ran into Tara Trimmer-Jewell, a slender girl from Grand Rapids, Mich., who dropped out of school after becoming involved with the city’s street gangs. She was pitched onto the dining-room table, her brunet hair falling across her face, hiding the book she was reading. Tara volunteered that while at Eagle Rock she had become enamored of William Blake’s poetry. ”He’s so blunt,” said Tara, whose dream is to attend Wellesley College. ”There’s nothing about him that walks around the subject. He’s like right down to it. I admire him for being a rebel, I guess.” Another student, James Masters, came to Eagle Rock after years of being shunted aside in special-education classes because of his dyslexia. ”It was definitely clear they didn’t think I’d go anywhere,” he said of his public-school teachers. ”Robert constantly threw books at me,” he said. James became enamored of the existentialists, and constantly pulled aside visitors to talk philosophy. He is now a student at Berea College in Kentucky. Sixteen of the school’s 31 other graduates have gone on to college as well. (Of the remaining, all but two or three are either working or in the military.)

Not all Eagle Rock students match James’s and Tara’s academic rigor and curiosity. Some arrive with grade-school reading levels; some rarely read. Indeed, some staff members are concerned that with all the emphasis on community and personal growth, the kids have not been held to a similar discipline in their studies. At the end of each trimester, students are required to give a ”Presentation of Learning,” a public exhibition to fellow students, the staff and visitors. I attended a dozen presentations, and while some informed, like 18-year-old Rachel Curran’s lucid explanation of the Riverwatch class’s findings, others lazily skimmed along their studies. One student, Brandie Pacheco, a painfully shy 17-year-old from New Mexico, presented slides of her classmates hamming it up while refurbishing the turn-of-the-century homestead; she made no mention of what she had learned.

Some teachers have suggested that the failure to earn any credits in a trimester should be reason for expulsion. ”At the beginning I said it would take a full five years to get the culture down to where we wanted it,” Burkhardt said. ”The culture’s getting fairly strong, but the second five years are redefining and refining the academics.” Many students, with the school’s encouragement, pursue studies independent of the classroom, especially in the arts.

That’s what ultimately engaged Jerry McGinnes. Jerry let down his guard slowly. He built a swing on campus and attended an anger-management group. He enchanted elementary-school kids from nearby Estes Park to whom he taught navigational skills. And he admitted to an epiphany of sorts. From the top of a nearby mountain, he witnessed a glorious sunset. ”Yeah, I’ve seen a million and one sunsets,” he told me. ”But I was sitting there thinking, Travis” — a friend from Fort Collins — ”is in jail and he can’t even enjoy this now. That’s when I realized, Wow, look at what I’ve got. I can’t be such a jerk to everyone. Something just came to me. Wake up, Jerry.”

Then one night last fall after 10 P.M. curfew, a group of boys snuck into the dorm of a frail boy they didn’t like. They woke him up by pummeling him. The boys tried to get Jerry to join in, but he refused — though he had actually got dressed and then at the last minute bowed out. Weeks later at the morning gathering, the students were called on their misconduct. Jerry got up, his back against the wall, his hands clutching his shaven head. He rocked back and forth. ”I was weak,” he told his classmates. ”I don’t know why I didn’t step up, hold you to your commitment.”

At that moment, Burkhardt knew that Jerry had bought into Eagle Rock’s values, its sense of community. Moreover, in the intervening months Jerry found an outlet for his anger: drawing. He began to paint exquisite watercolors, mostly of sunsets, and so Burkhardt asked Jerry to create a mural in the lodge. Jerry erected scaffolding above the entranceway to the kitchen and spent most days 30 feet off the ground, dressed in white painter’s pants and apron, listening to the Grateful Dead, painting.

Jerry also began to re-establish a relationship with his parents, who adopted him when he was 6. ”The 12 or so years we lived together, Jerry really never wanted to talk with us,” his father, Darrel, told me. ”This summer he called and we talked for 45 minutes.” They talked mainly about the Global Positioning System, since Darrel McGinnes had given Jerry a G.P.S. instrument for his 19th birthday. While Jerry used to discard his gifts, he became obsessed with this offering, writing his senior paper on the subject.

During my first stay at Eagle Rock, Jerry’s parents visited to view their son’s mural. They stood beneath the painting of a rising sun that hovered over three wise men and an angel, the work not yet complete. Jerry nervously bounced from foot to foot. ”Well, Jerry, I’m impressed,” his mother, Carolyn, said. ”Where are you putting your signature?” Jerry shrugged. He was scheduled to graduate in six weeks, but his parents were clearly anxious. ”Always in the past when he made successes,” his mother said later, ”he’d make sure they wouldn’t last.” I noticed that she had her fingers crossed.

You would be hard pressed to identify tight cliques at Eagle Rock, which is especially unusual in a place as diverse and self-contained as it is here. Roughly half the students are nonwhite. Jerry’s close friends range from a girl from Trenton’s inner city to a boy who lived in a trailer park out west. ”I was just blown away,” said one visiting educator who was awed by how nurturing the students were of one another.

And the students develop a firm sense of right and wrong. The school has strict behavioral limits, expelling students for committing what it calls ”nonnegotiables” — fighting, taking drugs, smoking, having sex, anything that could harm the integrity of the community. The school permits, even encourages, expelled students to reapply for admission, and as many as one-third of the students at any given time are second-chancers. But equally interesting is that Burkhardt and his staff rarely have to be the bad guys; the students usually own up to their sins — often at the morning gatherings.

Halfway through last fall’s trimester rumors spread of students who had committed nonnegotiables. At one gathering, a veteran student, Willow Moore, an avid kayaker from rural Wisconsin who had dropped out of school, admitted to having had sex four months earlier and to drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes. ”I wanted it off my chest,” she told me later. Afterward she confronted a housemate, Danielle Williams, a new student from the hardscrabble streets of Chicago, who she knew had also had sex with another student. ”You know you’re cheating yourself and the community,” she told Danielle, who then burst into tears. Willow kissed her on the forehead, assuring her, ”It’s going to be all right.” Danielle soon confessed to her classmates at the hearth.

By now you have probably said to yourself: O.K., great stuff, but is Eagle Rock replicable? Let’s be straight about it, since it is what every visitor asks: it is not, at least not in its entirety. For starters, most schools have their students only six or seven hours a day. Here, by Burkhardt’s own admission, ”it doesn’t necessarily unravel at night, since we don’t send the kids back to their poison — a troubled family, a dangerous environment, drugs, poverty, abuse.” But more to the point, Honda spends roughly $25,000 per student each year, a figure several times the average public-school expenditure. The school provides students with all their essential needs, from books to gym uniforms, as well as with some nonessentials, like long-distance phone time, which has led staff members to worry that some kids become quickly spoiled.

Eagle Rock doesn’t expect to be cloned. Instead, the hope is that visiting educators will apply pieces of the school to their own situations. An alternative school in Topeka, Kan., now holds ”family meetings” modeled after Eagle Rock’s morning gatherings. A new private school in Boston, Shackleton Schools, reworked its educational model after viewing Eagle Rock’s. And Glenbrook South High School, in an affluent Chicago suburb, now has some seniors do end-of-the-year presentations of learning.

When Honda and Burkhardt designed Eagle Rock, they insisted it be a laboratory for educators, and so christened it the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center. Each year, as many as 2,000 teachers, principals and scholars pass through the campus, sitting in on classes and chatting with students, so many that the students occasionally complain of being in a fishbowl. Guests stay at a bunkhouse built specifically to accommodate them.

”We school people are really gifted and talented at finding reasons why the good things happening at another school can’t possibly happen at my school,” said Roland S. Barth, the founder of the Principals’ Center at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard and a visitor to Eagle Rock. ”There’s a lot of conversation now about character, about values, about teaching respect. It’s often rhetorical. I don’t think many schools are as intentional at developing community and really being clear about what the values are of that community as is Eagle Rock.” It would be only fair to point out that its components — smallness, teaching values, experiential learning, service requirements, presentations of learning — are not new. Rather it is the chassis that Eagle Rock has welded with each of these parts that presents such a startling new design.

Has Eagle Rock been successful? The school has wrestled with a high attrition rate. Nearly half the students don’t finish, though most who leave do so voluntarily in the first few months, usually during the rugged wilderness trip. But many who spend only two or three trimesters at Eagle Rock return to their public schools with the skills and outlook to flourish. Nonetheless, with applications on the rise, the school has become more discriminating in whom it admits, seeking teen-agers who are making some effort toward reclaiming their lives. (One school official suggested that under these new guidelines, Jerry might not have been admitted; moreover, the school prefers admitting younger teen-agers, usually 15- or 16-year-olds.) But the school has become most concerned about those who are forced out because of bad behavior, and so has begun to consider alternatives to expulsion. Ten students who had committed nonnegotiables, including Willow and Danielle, spent this past January camped along a ridge that bounds the property to the east. Each student was given three sheets of plywood and a tarp to build a sleeping structure; they smartly chose to pool their resources and construct one large shelter. They heated it with a wood fire and built their own furniture. Staff members, who camped with them, conducted daily classes. What I found most telling is that each of these students could have gone home and reapplied for admission. It certainly would have made for a more comfortable winter. But each of them chose to spend January warding off the Rocky Mountains’ single-digit temperatures and gale-force winds.

”We’ve been giving them three hots and a cot and access to the gym and all this kind of stuff,” Burkhardt said, ”and now when they get back to it they’re going to appreciate that a whole lot more.” And besides, he added, his tone gentler, ”the level of intimacy these kids need is staggering.” Which brings me back to Jerry McGinnes, whose own journey is testament to the school’s power to transform.

The night before what would be Eagle Rock’s largest graduation to date — five students — Jerry sat cross-legged on his unmade bed. He wore his painter’s pants and a short-sleeved shirt patterned with dragonflies. The previous day he had given his final Presentation of Learning, in which he re-enacted his sentencing in court, and then, after exhibiting his artwork, told the 150 people present that at Eagle Rock ”you have teachers who care so much, they sometimes care more than you do.” Jerry had framed the sketch from which he painted the mural and presented it to Burkhardt. They embraced. ”I’m not sure you understand how talented you are,” Burkhardt told him. A psychologist to whom Jerry’s parents had sent him was also present and, on the spot, offered Jerry a job as an assistant art instructor at a program he runs for troubled youth. Jerry, perched on his bed, told me he had accepted the position. But I wanted to talk with Jerry about something that had brought him to tears at his presentation. A staff member had asked Jerry, ”What advice would you give Jed now?” Jed was one of the students expelled for the after-curfew assault; he had been for Jerry like a little brother. Jerry’s voice again choked with emotion; he could barely respond. ”He was just like me,” Jerry told me as he pounded his right fist into an open palm. ”What kills me is if I said, ‘Jed, don’t go,’ he wouldn’t have gone. Then I came to the realization that this kid’s got to make his own decisions.” Jerry stopped the pounding, and looked out the window at the snow-covered mountains. ”It’s hard to be leaving this place. I kind of don’t want to.”

At graduation the next day, Jerry, in a last act of defiance, wore white fluffy slippers given to him by two friends and sat onstage with his cap pulled low over his eyes. The gym was packed. Students. Staff. A dozen returning interns, as well as six returning graduates. Jerry, who was awarded a $1,000 college scholarship, got to the podium, leaned forward and blew out air. I could feel his nervousness. ”I can’t believe I did it,” he sighed. ”It’s just amazing.”

It is. But Burkhardt, who can be these kids’ biggest cheerleader, had a few days earlier cautioned me that ”Jerry’s bought into a lot of the values here and they will flower over the next several years. They need nurturing with Jerry. And I’m hopeful that he will be in situations that he doesn’t succumb to temptations. He may. But he’s got a good start. He’s got as good a start as we can give him.”

Copyright 1998 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.


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