Rocky Mountain News – Failure Not an Option at Eagle Rock School

Joelle S. recited a line from Julius Caesar and engaged her classmates in a Socratic discussion.

(Her) only concern in school one year ago was how to stay high through class, if she even showed up. But today, sitting at a circular table with classmates who also have weathered troubled times, (She) found stimulation in Shakespeare and her new surroundings.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’ve changed completely. Before, I did drugs, I smoked, I went out every night,” said Joelle, 17.

“Now, I’m up early every morning, I run, I don’t do drugs, drink, or smoke, and I know I have a future,” she said. “I know I’m Joelle now.”

Joelle and about 40 other teen-agers from Colorado and locations throughout the country are learning to read, write and think at an innovative residential high school just north of Estes Park.

“Before, I’d never have finished high school. Now I want to go to college, I want to have a career. I’ve learned that when you limit your choices in life, they stop,” she said.

Students live in separate boys’ and girls’ residences, walk to classrooms, work out in a first-class fitness center and eat meals in a small cafeteria with faculty and staff who also live on the 640-acre Eagle Rock School complex.

American Honda Education Corp. a non-profit ground founded by Amercian Honda Motor Co., has spent more than $21 million to build and run Eagle Rock School to revitalize approaches to education.

It stresses intellectual discipline, physical fitness, aesthetic expression, spiritual development, cross-cultural understanding, civic service, environmental stewardship and democratic governance.

Students are required to attend classes six days a week, exercise daily, study, do chores and participate in community service through their courses.

“These are kids who supposedly couldn’t learn, who hated school and learning. Not so,” said school head Robert Burkhardt, who steered Joelle and 10 other students through a spirited discussion of Julius Caesar.

“Why are they so willing to grapple with Shakespeare now? Why not six months ago?” Burkhardt said. “They are interested, they’re engaged and challenged, and they believe they are in charge of their own learning.”

From their second week at the school, when groups of students embark on a 21-day wilderness backpacking trip, students admitted to Eagle Rock are expected to be responsible and to contribute.

The school, Burkhardt said, tries to instill “a sense of community,” and sets strict rules. Alcohol, drugs, tobacco and violence are prohibited.

“There are no free lunches at Eagle Rock. Everything you get, you will have to sweat and work for,” the school says to prospective students, who must be nominated by a cooperating public school district and meet other requirements.

Eagle Rock, which in the next year will expand to a capacity of 90 students, has seen attrition. Burkhardt said only six of the original 16 students still are attending. At the time, there was no peer group to lead by example, he said.

But students who stay are treated with dignity and compassion. Joelle, who came to Eagle Rock in January from Thornton, said that the instructors and staff of 18 care about her.

“People say ‘Hi’ to me, they ask me how I’m doing,” said Joelle, who hopes to graduate from Eagle Rock next year. “Learning is exciting for me now.”

Students are given individualized learning plans designed to help them read, think, and write. And they are free, in this secluded valley, from the sometimes threatening and overwhelming social pressures they faced at home.

Frankie Gomez, 15, arrived at Eagle Rock last month from New Haven, Conn. Immediately, he noticed a pleasant difference.

“There’s no violence here,” Gomez said. “Back home, everything was negative. Here, everything is positive.”

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