Snapshots: The Specialist Schools Trust Journal of Innovation in Education – The Eagle Rock School Wilderness Program

Why Wilderness?

The Eagle Rock School wilderness program places students in unique situations that provide for valuable learning experiences. 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 (i.e., TV, fast food, drugs/alcohol, cars, malls, make-up, etc.).

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 feeling 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.

What is the significance of requiring all new students to participate in a 25-day backpacking experience?

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 day 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.

Young people aren’t officially counted among the ranks of students until they’ve completed the course. What purpose does this serve?

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 in order 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.

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 & 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, formal written evaluations are completed by peers and instructors in the middle of the course and at the end.

If at the end of the course, the student is deficient in certain areas and/or is resistant to working on change, then they are 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.

What are the mechanics of Wilderness trip?

Each incoming ER group going into the wilderness is considered a course. There may be as few as 6 students or as many as 24 on a course. When there are more than 10 students, the course is split into 2 patrols, each patrol containing between 6 and 10 students. Each patrol has 2-3 instructors who travel with the students throughout the entire trip.Each course has one course director and one logistics coordinator, though the positions are sometimes combined. The course director and logistics coordinator float between patrols helping with rock climbing days, peak ascents, service projects and resupplies.

Lead instructors are trained professionals with at least 4 years of wilderness trip leadership experience and have traveled in the course area being used by ERS. Typically they have worked for Outward Bound, NOLS or similar outdoor programs. They also spend a week in orientation at Eagle Rock being briefed on the students, goals and values of ERS and the wilderness program, and risk management policies and practices. Instructors are also required to have current CPR and wilderness first responder (first aid) certifications.Though ERS cannot guarantee a student’s safety, the ERS wilderness program embraces safety as its top priority. All decisions are first filtered through the “safety lens” and then considered for educational value before any action is taken on a course.

The flow of a course is described in the following paragraphs.Students spend 2 weeks on campus preparing for the wilderness trip and learning about how the school functions. Specifically during the 2 weeks they help with packing of food, preparing equipment, participating in group/team building activities, and learning some of the skills that they will need to travel safely and comfortably in the wilderness.

Prior to leaving for the field, the course director along with instructors write up an itinerary for the course. Details like campsites, water sources, trails, rock climbing sites, emergency vehicle placement, peak climbs and off trail hiking routes are all written up in the itinerary. The itinerary is then mailed to the Forest Service, and given to Dick Herb, Director of Operations at ERS in case an emergency would arise.Changes sometimes occur in the itinerary, and when that happens Dick is informed. Weather is the biggest variable that would instigate an itinerary change.

Once on the course, the first week is spent teaching backcountry skills like; cooking, tarp pitching, keeping warm and comfortable, first aid, hiking, map and compass, and other basic skills. Students typically also rock climb toward the end of the first week. After the first 6-7 days students hike out to a roadhead (usually a parking lot where the trail begins) for a resupply. The resupply involves students repacking their packs with food and other equipment, sending and receiving letters, and eating a fresh meal before heading back out on the trail.

One activity that has significant impact on students is the rock-climbing day. Rock climbing provides a great metaphor for the challenges students will face back on campus. Through the use of ropes and well-developed safety systems, we set up climbs that allow the students to approach and succeed at a seemingly impossible task. When they overcome their fears and succeed at climbing, we then discuss the experience and translate the steps they took to overcome the climb to steps they will need to take to successfully overcome challenges back on campus.

The second week generally involves backpacking, another day of rock climbing, and climbing a peak. Students become more independent during this week with camp chores and managing how the group interacts and works together during the day. At the end of the second week the group once again does a resupply.

The third week of the course involves solo, service, and a final expedition. The group typically hikes one day to the solo site.Students are then placed about 100 yards apart and are given a 15-foot by 15-foot area that they must stay within for 3 days. They have their own tarp, and small amount of food, warm clothes, sleeping bag and ground pad, water and their journal. Solo is a powerful time for students to reflect on their past, how they are doing on the course, and what they intend to do for the rest of the course, back at ERS, and the rest of their lives.

After solo, students hike to the service site. Service is done in cooperation with the government land management agency where we are conducting the course. Projects include clearing trails, building bridges, planting trees, etc. Our intent with service is first to allow students to give back to the land that has taught them so much, and secondly to give students a hands on understanding of one of the fundamental values of ERS – service to others. Again, reflection is a key to this learning experience.

The field aspect of the course wraps up with 2-4 days of final expedition. The final is a time when instructors follow students yet have minimal interaction throughout the day. Final expedition is something that is earned by the students. The amount of interaction with students depends upon their performance during the course and their ability to travel responsibly.Regardless of the level of independence, the instructors are always within earshot and continue to monitor the group for safety. When students finish the final expedition, they typically participate in an improvised sauna to cleanse the body after a month without showers. Finally the field component ends with wrap up activities designed to maximize the impact of the trip and help keep momentum for the next phase of their ERS career.

The last section of the course is the marathon.Students run the final 6 miles into Eagle Rock. The run symbolizes the students giving all that they have for one final physical challenge and being welcomed back into the community. The run ends at Eagle Rock with lots of fan fare and cheering from staff, students and families and sponsors.

Once back on campus, students debrief their experience with instructors who will be working with them for the remainder of the trimester, help clean gear, and prepare for their wilderness presentation of learning (WPOL).Each student gives a 5-minute presentation to the entire community on the Saturday following their arrival back to campus.

After the wilderness presentation of learning, students write a wilderness reflection paper, and meet once a week with an adult mentor. The paper and the mentor meetings are designed to assist the student in continuing to work on personal growth issues from the wilderness course.

Eagle Rock 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 do not expect to graduate from 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.

Accredited by the North Central Association, the Association of Colorado Independent Schools and the Association for Experiential Education.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *