Phi Delta Kappan – Challenging Assumptions: Helping Struggling Students Succeed

A unique boarding school in the Rocky Mountains proves that even students who have already dropped out of school can be persuaded to return, stay in school, and graduate.

Vidal: I didn’t feel like anyone was taking any time to connect school to my future.

Chris: School was boring. I would get p***ed off at any adult who tried to get me to do something I didn’t want. No one is telling me what to do. It’s easy to believe in a big school that the teachers don’t care (even if that is an unfair assessment).

Raphael: Adults at my school were lazy… they didn’t care.

Robert: I have an issue with trusting.

Melissa: Where I come from, you don’t get a lot of opportunities. If you’re female of Hispanic origin, you end up caring for your brothers and having kids at an early age because there aren’t a lot of opps out there. I had a mask or bad-a** façade. I thought I had to be this way because people wouldn’t listen unless I yelled.

These are the voices of high school students describing why they dropped out of school. They and other students who drop out do so for an array of reasons, some that seem unrelated to their experiences in school. Just as students don’t shed their personal and social selves when they walk through school doors, educators can’t cast off the personal and social problems that cause some students to exit those doors before graduation. Schools (and the districts and states that support them) can do something about “the dropout problem” if they’re willing to challenge some assumptions about how schools are run.

An accredited, independent high school with a public school purpose, Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center (ERS) in Estes Park, Colo., has tackled the problem of re-engaging students in their own learning. ERS enrolls only students who have dropped out of school. Funded by the American Honda Education Corporation (AHEd), a nonprofit subsidiary of Honda North America, Eagle Rock was established to figure out how to re-engage students in learning and help them graduate and enter adulthood with the ability and desire to contribute to the public good. Since its establishment in 1993, its other purpose has been to share with educators what might work with their own students (its “public school purpose”).

Students come to Eagle Rock from across the United States, at no cost to them, their families, or their own school districts. The cost of tuition, room and board, travel, and incidentals, which AHEd bears, is equivalent to a medium-priced private school. Students stay in this residential school until they graduate from Eagle Rock or are ready to go home to graduate from their own or other schools. Some of the data about Eagle Rock is anecdotal — stories of students who had given up on themselves and their learning but graduated and went on to college (even graduate school), a successful career, or military service. These stories are often quite poignant. In terms of numbers, around 90% of Eagle Rock students graduate from Eagle Rock or from their home or other schools, able to do what they couldn’t do before they enrolled at Eagle Rock. They were able to stay in school, re-engage in learning, and graduate. Students take a norm-referenced test upon graduation, routinely exceeding their entering scores. (For more about Eagle Rock, see

AHEd, whose only project to date is Eagle Rock, understood that its public purpose would depend on its success with the most challenging students. The public purpose — sharing what works with public, charter, and independent schools and helping them improve how they work with struggling students who are likely to drop out — is the job of the ERS Professional Development Center (PDC). The school provides a laboratory for change and an immersion experience for educators who visit or otherwise access what Eagle Rock has learned in more than a decade; PDC staff help them translate what they have learned to their own environments.

Eagle Rock is the kind of school John Dewey had in mind when he designed the University of Chicago Lab School: “As it is not the primary function of the laboratory to devise ways and means that can at once be put to practical use, so it is not the primary purpose of this school to devise methods with reference to their direct application in the graded school system. It is the function of some schools to provide better teachers according to present standards; it is the function of others to create new standards and ideals and thus to lead to a gradual change in conditions” (Boydston 1967: 437).

Some educators have tried to replicate Eagle Rock, but most have adopted or adapted some important aspect of Eagle Rock, such as its Presentations of Learning or service learning program. Like any educator engaged in improving school for students, especially struggling students, they have had to rethink some of their assumptions about education.


Educators who have worked with Eagle Rock to design or redesign schools have had to challenge a set of assumptions that might have prevented them from making substantive change. Here are four key assumptions that educators must challenge so that schools can serve the most vulnerable students.

Assumption #1: Adults must create, maintain, and improve schools. Of course they should, but most education organizations overlook the important role that students could and should play in their own schools. A hierarchy of adults from state officials to teachers usually designs and runs schools. Adults work hard to craft schools they think will be the best possible environments for teaching and learning, but they seldom consult the consumers of their products and processes, the students themselves.

Eagle Rock example: Students and adults use both formal and informal ways to ensure that everyone has a voice at Eagle Rock. Formally, students as well as adults serve on curriculum committees, staff hiring panels, student selection committees, policies and procedures colloquia, and community forums. They take turns leading meetings related to the life of the community. If students or staff members sense a need, they form task forces, which may be populated only by students or by students and staff members interested in the issue. Task forces know that they’ll need to draft, present, and revise proposals for making changes. Students are as interested as — or more than — adults in how their school is run so that it’s safe and nurturing for everyone.

Sound like anarchy? Strangely enough, it isn’t. Because there are mechanisms for affecting the community, there is no overt and almost no covert action among students. (Every once in a while an “underground” community surfaces… until students and staff realize that they have legitimate ways of being heard.)

Informally, staff members routinely ask students what they need to succeed. Students learn respectful ways of working toward what they need; they operate within the school community; and they engage in democratic processes that will last their lifetimes.

Informally, Eagle Rock staff members have lots of nonacademic time with students. There’s no faculty lounge or staff lunchroom on campus to separate adults from students. Staff members and students participate in intramurals and clubs. Students and staff members belong to “houses” and engage in house activities together, including governance, advisories, resolution of issues, and — yes — parties. Staff members seem approachable in these nonacademic settings, and students enjoy “hanging out” with them. Students and staff members get to know each other beyond their “student” or “staff” roles, and talking about what would improve the setting that has brought them together — Eagle Rock — is a frequent topic in conversation, sometimes leading to more formal ways of implementing change.

Assumption #2: As it once was, so it shall forever be in terms of time, credits, and graduation. Time: 12 or 13 years to graduate. Each of these years lasts for about nine months, each month has about four weeks, each week has five days, and each day has about seven hours. All of that time is spent in a building called “school.”

Students must accrue credits toward graduation. But obtaining credits does not signify anything about what a student knows or is able to do, only that the student has sat in a class for long enough and has, perhaps, engaged in enough work to achieve a minimal grade.

Eagle Rock example: Graduation requirements at Eagle Rock have never been based on time. Students enter and graduate from Eagle Rock at a variety of ages. Because there are no grade levels, students do not move from grade to grade. There are also no grades, as in marks of quality; proficiency is expected of every student.

Students graduate when they demonstrate that they have met these five expectations: expanding their knowledge base, communicating effectively, creating and making healthy life choices, engaging as a global citizen, and practicing leadership for justice.

These five expectations reflect holistic outcomes but have important, specific curriculum implications. The expectations give life to the curriculum; they help students understand why they need to learn certain standards. Jeff Liddle, ERS director of curriculum, put it this way: “Our curriculum originates in the five expectations and is learner-centered, experiential, strengths-based, relevant to global conditions, and achievable within a reasonable time period; its purpose is to promote teamwork and independent, imaginative thinking.”

Students enroll in classes and participate in other learning experiences in order to work on the five expectations. They might, for example, take a class called “Blood and Guts,” a biology course with a twist. They might also work in the school kitchen on KP (Kitchen Patrol) learning about sustainable agriculture. They document their learning in a variety of ways and, at the end of 10 weeks, make a Presentation of Learning