Everybody’s busy reforming American schools these days, but few have the chance to start a school from scratch, and no one has adequate funding . . . except Robert Burkhardt ’62. Four years ago, an executive at American Honda Corporation came to him with an idea for a school unlike any other: a year-round, tuition-free residential program that applied cutting-edge pedagogy and the character-building challenge of outdoor adventure to the task of educating high school students at risk of dropping out.
Honda-willing to bet its philanthropic budget on a major service project for its largest foreign market-would foot the bill for the school’s creation and its annual operation if Burkhardt could realize this particular educational dream. Burkhardt didn’t blink. He moved from his home in San Francisco to 640 acres in a high, narrow valley near Estes Park, Colorado, and sank $17 million of Honda’s money into the Eagle Rock School.
Now in its third year, Eagle Rock educates some 60 15-to-18-year olds, and expects to reach its capacity of 96 in the near future. While many American educators are questioning affirmative action, Eagle Rock seeks equal-not proportional-representation of African-American, Native American, Latino, Caucasian, and Asian American students and teachers. And while educational fashion dictates “back-to-basics,” Eagle Rock’s curriculum is practically impossible to describe in traditional high-school terms.
Five hundred acres of the school’s forests, meadows, and rocky peaks are protected from further development by a conservation easement. The remaining 140 acres are devoted to Eagle Rock’s educational plant. They encompass a “learning village” complete with laboratories, workshops, classrooms, and a library; a “human performance center” incorporating a gym, a climbing wall, a pool, and a stage; dining and meeting rooms; and a “living village,” where students board in small coed dormitories under the watchful eyes of faculty members who live on the premises. There is also a professional- development center to house visiting teachers and researchers. (Five Princetonians-Eleanor Harrison ’92, Sarah Bertucci ’96, Laura O’Neill ’97, Skye Delano-Nuttall ’96, and Allison White ’95-have made the pilgrimage to Eagle Rock as interns.)
Truants, gang members, drug abusers, dealers, unwed parents, the chronically dysfunctional, and the generally disaffected make up the student body. A few weeks at Eagle Rock, and they are practically unrecognizable.
Burkhardt himself teaches a three-week crash course in Eagle Rock’s educational culture. Called ERS 101, it meets at 8:30 one late January morning. The 20 teenagers who make up ER-5, the school’s fifth entering class, sit around an oval Formica table. They’ve been at the school two weeks. (A new class arrives every four months.) Their day began with Tai Chi at 6:30, and they are well awake. The classroom, a miniature cathedral of pine wainscoting and white plasterboard, rises to a multi-windowed peak. The Rocky Mountain morning lights the room with bright rectangles.
Burkhardt ambles around the table in a blue Oxford shirt, a brown v-neck sweater, and a pair of pressed cords. His students wear jeans, nose rings, baseball caps, miniskirts, big shoes, and hairstyles ranging from dreadlocks to the severely asymmetrical.
“The subject, friends,” says Burkhardt in his clear tenor, “is quality. Who can remember having a quality educational experience?”
Frankie (16, Puerto Rican, sweatshirt, jeans) says, “In fourth grade, I made the best 25 in Connecticut in a spelling contest.”
“Why was it a quality experience?” asks Burkhardt.
“Because I worked hard to get there, and it felt good.”
“Nice. Thank you, Frankie. How often have you experienced real quality in education . . . Janel?” Burkhardt gives Janel (15, Caucasian) a gentle nudge with one hand while the other tousles her neighbor’s hair. Janel won’t rise to the bait.
“If your problem is that you’re thinking of an answer you think I want you to give . . . ,” says Burkhardt.
“Ice skating!” blurts Erol, a New Yorker of Turkish descent.
“That’s not learning,” counters Janel, engaged at last.
“Then what is learning?” asks Burkhardt.
“Well, skating’s fun, but . . .”
“Fun’s legit!,” cries Burkhardt. “Must a quality education be un-fun? Does anybody know what an oxymoron is?”
Maya (15, Caucasian, retro-fifties glasses, black-dyed hair) weighs in: “Quality schooling is an oxymoron. Listen, Robert, I’m not busting your generation, but why is teaching so bad now?”
Burkhardt responds with a five-minute history of American public education since the days of Horace Mann, then halts the dispersing class with a homework assignment: “Tomorrow we ask ourselves, ‘Should we concentrate on the eradication of evil or the cultivation of virtue?’ Keep in mind what we talked about yesterday: Plato and his cave allegory.”
Burkhardt’s office is two purple formica platforms on file cabinets wedged into a corner of the unpartitioned main floor of Eagle Rock’s administrative building. On the left stand a San Francisco 49ers cup, a Powerbook computer, a candy jar, and a fat Rolodex. On the right are a row of CDs, a compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and copies of The Longman Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, The Closing of the American Mind, Afro-American Folk Tales, History of Rocky Mountain Park, and The I Ching.
On the wall is a poster of the Pickle Family Circus (which Burkhardt founded in a former life) and on the floor a boombox and Burkhardt’s pair of inline skates. “If zero is a kid bound for Harvard Business School,” he says, “and 100 is a kid bound for life in prison, I’d say we’re dealing with kids from 50 to 100. We worry about character first. If we can help them develop their characters, French and math will take care of themselves.”
Character-building is hardly a new idea, but Eagle Rock’s approach to it is. Most Eagle Rock teachers have counseled youths in settings ranging from drug-rehab centers to prisons. Learning how to make “healthy” life choices and becoming engaged as global citizens (with an emphasis on environmental stewardship) weigh as heavily in the curriculum as science and literature.
As for school work, Eagle Rock teachers build learning into real-life experience and focus on highly articulated goals. Students work on particular requirements for as long as it takes to master them, in a bewildering array of learning environments: “short courses,” “block courses,” “explore weeks,” and “facilitated study halls.” The academic year is punctuated by three-week wilderness trips and 500 hours of community service.
At times, Eagle Rock students are required to teach each other and occasionally to teach faculty members. They produce much of their schoolwork in teams rather than in competition with each other. It all sounds ambitious. But Eagle Rock’s school day runs from dawn until well after dark, and there are 240 days in an Eagle Rock year, versus 180 in most high schools. The extra time and the school’s five-to-one student/faculty ratio enable it to exceed standard high-school course requirements across the board. Eagle Rock students spend more than 1,000 hours studying math, for example, versus the 500 hours required in traditional programs.
While it’s premature to assess results, five of the school’s nine graduates are enrolled in college, one has been accepted and has deferred for a year, and the other three intend to go in the future. None were headed for a high school diploma before Eagle Rock, and one had been thrown out of nine high schools.
Wayne Meisel, president of the Bonner Foundation, of Princeton, New Jersey, and Burkhardt’s fellow traveler in the national-service movement, says, “The excitement and caring Robert brings to that community of high-risk students is what ought to define education in a democracy.”
Burkhardt comes by such kudos the long way around. His mother taught school, and his father worked in a foundry until the day he took a job managing Robert Meyner’s 1953 campaign for governor of New Jersey. Says Burkhardt, “New Jersey hadn’t had a Democrat as governor for 35 years. Dad ran the campaign mainly because it paid $6,000, and we needed the money.” Meyner won, and Burkhardt’s father went on to become New Jersey’s secretary of state and the chairman of its Democratic party. The Burkhardts sent Robert to the Lawrenceville School. “I loved sitting in the front of the class and learning stuff,” he recalls. “I was a varsity swimmer, sang in the Glee Club, won a writing prize, all that stuff. I was a show-off.”
At Princeton, where he majored in English, he also sang in the Glee Club and swam varsity, was head cheerleader, and spent a summer in Brittany as an apprentice welder for the French national-gas company. After graduating, Burkhardt joined the Peace Corps in its first year and was dispatched to teach English in Iran. “I met the Shah two weeks after I arrived,” he recalls, “and was there in June of ’63, when Khomeini led the first uprising that led to his Parisian exile.”
Back in the U.S., Burkhardt taught at his old grade school, then returned as an admission officer to Lawrenceville, where he spent his summers leading groups in Operation Crossroads Africa. He drove one Crossroads group through Nigeria in the summer of 1966, at the outbreak of a civil war. “Now that,” he says, “is leadership training!” Keeping with a career path that had followed a steep but predictable trajectory, Burkhardt enrolled in a Columbia University doctoral program in education.
He thought he might someday earn a high appointment in the federal education bureaucracy. His mother hoped he’d run for the U.S. Senate. Neither had counted on the Vietnam War and the free-school movement. Burkhardt’s diversion from education’s straight and narrow began during graduate school with an internship with the Commissioner of Education, in Washington, D.C. “I engineered a couple of trips to see the Chicago Seven trial. We went out to the Mall every weekend and screamed against the war.”
He transferred from Columbia’s doctoral program to a “university-without-walls,” which would allow him to start an alternative high school as a doctoral dissertation. “All of a sudden I was in San Francisco, living on food stamps in this hippie warehouse with 150 other people-Vietnam vets against the war, dance groups, potters. We charged inner-city kids 10 bucks a month for tuition and kept the school alive for four and a half years.” Sporting shoulder-length hair and beads, Burkhardt received his PhD and promptly apprenticed himself to a plumber. From plumbing, he migrated to juggling and from juggling to founding his own circus-two, in fact: Make-A-Circus and the Pickle Family Circus.
One day in 1976, the Pickle Family’s stage manager said to him, “Hey, Boy Scout, I’ve got a job for you. Jerry Brown’s starting this new thing, taking kids out to clean up the woods and teach them some things. They’re calling it the California Conservation Corps.” Burkhardt fast-talked his way into an interview, borrowed a jacket, tie, and car, and showed up for an interview at eight the next morning.
After talking his way up the pecking order, he was finally introduced to the new program’s director, Boyd Horner ’59, whom Burkhardt’s father had helped when Horner was writing his senior thesis on a senatorial campaign of New Jersey Democrat Harrison Williams. Burkhardt got the job, and over the next seven years rose to chief deputy director of the California Conservation Corps as it grew into a $34-million state agency with 500 civil servants. He left in 1984 to start San Francisco’s own conservation corps, which was so successful in dealing with the 1989 earthquake that when Burkhardt left for Eagle Rock, the mayor staged a “Burkhardt Appreciation Day.”
American Honda found Burkhardt while overhauling its corporate-giving strategy. Like most firms operating in America, Honda had for years underwritten a conventional mix of arts and educational efforts. When the company’s Japanese owners decided to take a more focused approach, they dispatched two executives, Mak Itabashi and Tom Dean, on a year-long, nationwide effort to find out what America needed most.
Experts suggested that the country’s greatest need was nipping its massive social problems in the bud, and that the best way to do so was through educational intervention. Honda founded a nonprofit subsidiary called American Honda Education Corporation to create schools like Eagle Rock (its sole beneficiary to date). A national search found Burkhardt for the top job. In underwriting Eagle Rock, Honda took a long view often lacking on the part of home-grown corporations.
One of Burkhardt’s fondest memories is of a 1991 meeting in which Itabashi, by then the president of American Honda Education, tried to explain his company’s commitment to the Larimer County commissioners, who wanted to know how long the school could count on Honda’s support. Was its commitment good for five years? Ten? Without irony, he replied: “Forever.”
Students of er-5 have gathered at the Hearth, a large carpeted space around a fireplace, at 10:30 a.m. Each has painted a picture on a big piece of paper. The demons of the lives they’ve so recently left crash into Eagle Rock’s Shangri-La. Frankie, the young man who won the fourth-grade spelling contest, has painted a large medallion with “RIP” and a lot of names on it, including that of a brother who had died in a car chase with police in New Haven, Connecticut.
In 48 hours, Frankie will be expelled for violating one of Eagle Rock’s “non-negotiables,” smoking a joint. “I’m worried about him,” said Director of Students John Oubre. “We’ve had other kids leave Eagle Rock, but most had somebody to go home to. Not Frankie. I wouldn’t be surprised to get a call in a year or two. ‘You remember Frankie? He’s gone, man.’ ” Dinner at Eagle Rock is far different from the fare at the average high-school cafeteria. Mahi-mahi and a selection of gourmet grain dishes are on tonight’s menu, as are juice, spring water, and a salad bar. Eagle Rock students prepare it all-as part of their curriculum-under the tutelage of school chef Tim Phelps. Aretha Franklin rips through Klipsch speakers attached to a fancy rack stereo. (Brahms accompanied breakfast; the Grateful Dead did lunch.)
A large, flat birthday cake emerges from the kitchen, still in its baking pan. “You see that, man?” says Eric, an ER-5 student clad in a Miami Dolphins jersey. “The thing looks like a litter box, you know? But it’s made with real sugar. Have you noticed? There’s no sugar around here. No dessert except fruit and that trail crap.” “Yeah,” says Eric’s buddy, Aaron, “We go for so long without, that when we get a Snickers it’s like heroin; we bouncing off the walls for two hours after.” Eric and Aaron: white and black, 16 and 17, Colorado and Long Island, one a former drug dealer, the other a former armed robber, brand new but fast friends at Eagle Rock.
Unlike their classmate, Frankie, these guys look like they might make it. Eric’s trouble started in fifth grade, when his folks split up and he got suspended from school for punching a teacher. “Me and school didn’t click, and I started doing drugs.” Bounced between his father’s house in Boulder, his sister’s apartment in Denver, and his mother’s house in Montana, Eric started dealing, dropped out of high school, and got busted. “One day my dad said he’d heard about Eagle Rock and asked me just to go look at it. So I did, and here I am. The best part about it? I guess I got an opportunity that a lot of kids could use. I was home for a week a while ago.
I went to my old high school and saw where I was going-nowhere.” Aaron’s problems started in his first year of high school, when he started dealing drugs for his 22-year-old cousin. “I was making a lot of money and carrying a lot of props,” including the chrome-plated nine-millimeter he used in the armed holdup that landed him in the county jail for month and a half. “That’s when I took stock,” says Aaron. “I knew this wasn’t the way I wanted to go.” His lawyer struck a deal for Aaron’s release, on the condition he plead guilty and attend Eagle Rock. Aaron seems as amazed as anybody about his rapid progress. “I went home over break.
The people in my church asked me to speak-preach, really-and I did for a whole night. After that, everybody in my neighborhood was following me around and cheering me on.” At 8 p.m., students and teachers have assembled again in the Hearth. Philbert Smith, Eagle Rock’s instructional specialist in life skills, wellness, and counseling, calls the meeting to order with a long stretch of silence. He produces a polished piece of juniper from the summit of a place called Shaman Rock, then asks, “Do you believe Eagle Rock can be a place that is free of harmful substances like drugs, alcohol, and tobacco?”
Reminding the group that only the person holding the stick can speak, he tells them all must take a turn. Though they don’t know it, the students are being prepared for the dismissal of Frankie and of a female student named Sandra. The first speakers offer careful platitudes until Philbert, with help from Burkhardt and Oubre, prods them into honesty. The students begin to vent classic adolescent frustration at some of Eagle Rock’s rules, until Mike, a fresh-faced white kid with a baseball cap, speaks up. He’s just returned to Eagle Rock, having run away and engaged in a brief spree of check-kiting and breaking-and-entering. “All you who think you’re not free at Eagle Rock, take it from me.
Jail and boot camp are a lot less free. That’s where I’ve been for the last four months, and I know.” Eagle rock has set out to do a big job. but it is a tiny school as well as a rich one, and therefore subject to criticism from educators working in the larger, poorer schools that make up much of American education today.
One of Burkhardt’s ambitions is to bring Eagle Rock’s annual per-student operating costs ($15,000, exclusive of room and board) within range of those at most public schools, so it can serve as a practical model for them. According to Roland Barth ’59, a former professor of education at Harvard and the founder of an international network of school principals, “Most American schools are mired in 100-year-old habits, and almost all of them are ‘gifted and talented’ . . . at refusing to look beyond their own gates.
Eagle Rock’s a classy place, and it deserves serious attention because Eagle Rock students are not an easy bunch. If Burkhardt and his crew can transform them from high-school dropouts to college drop-ins, think of what they, and others who follow their example, might do for kids who are already doing well.”
Robert H. White, a former writer in the Office of Development, works at the Lawrenceville School.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright ÷1996 Princeton Alumni Weekly. All rights reserved.