Voices From the Field: The Journal of the National High School Association – The Intentional Creation of Learning Communities

School as community; the learning community.Schools should not only be communities of learners, but also learning communities.However, learning communities don_t just happen; they are the result of design, structure, and hard work.Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado, calls itself a learning community.Students and staff work to advance the concept of community as defined in four general areas _ philosophy and beliefs, structures, governance, and activities.In this article, we will examine how each of these components is expressed at Eagle Rock in the hope that other school communities may benefit from our experiences.

ABOUT EAGLE ROCK

Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center is a philanthropic initiative of the American Honda Education Corporation.Eagle Rock is a high school for students for whom success has been elusive in traditional programs.Eagle Rock is also a professional development center used by educators from across the country.

The school enrolls students _ mostly drop-out or expelled students aged 15 to 19 _ free of cost in a year-round residential program. Features of the program include:

  • Learning in a community;
  • Being of service within the Eagle Rock community and in other communities;
  • Living the values that guide the community;
  • Providing a metaphor for change through a wilderness experience;
  • A small student body;
  • A rigorous learner-centered curriculum;
  • Flexible scheduling and class locations;
  • Integrated curriculum, instruction, assessment, and life experiences; and,
  • The weaving of standards into an experiential, outdoor-oriented, interdisciplinary, and individualized program.

PHILOSOPHY AND BELIFS THAT ENSURE COMMUNITY AT EAGLE ROCK

Like many schools, Eagle Rock has a set of principles and values. These are known by the unlikely mnemonic 8 + 5 = 10. Eight themes on individual integrity and civic responsibility lead to five expectations for all graduates. These are combined into ten commitments that all students sign when they are admitted to Eagle Rock. Some of the expectations and commitments are similar to those any high school would have; others indicate the special focus Eagle Rock has on learning in community.

Eagle Rock students learn the school_s statement of beliefs at a deep level. Students admitted to Eagle Rock must walk through the front doors the first time with 8 + 5 = 10 already committed to memory. New students take a three-week class called Eagle Rock School 101 led by the head of school and the director of students. During this time, students learn each theme, each expectation, and each commitment deeply. They read to discover how poets, authors, and playwrights demonstrate 8 + 5 = 10 in their work. They apply what they are learning to world events _ past and present _ as well as to school life and themselves, using writing dramatization, debate, games, and art to express their understanding. The students then teach 8 + 5 = 10 to the contract instructors who guide them on a three-week wilderness trip that is similar to an Outward Bound expedition.

Any visitor to Eagle Rock can ask any student about 8 + 5 = 10 and get a good answer about what each element means and how the campus lives the values. Classes are taught with the mnemonic in mind, and decisions related to student behavior are addressed with it in consideration.

STRUCTURES THAT PROVIDE COMMUNITY AT EAGLE ROCK

Eagle Rock is intentionally small; at capacity it holds no more than 96 students. Like many restructuring schools, Eagle Rock recognized the value of smallness and personalization. Twenty-two full-time staff _ from the head of school to the head of maintenance _ work with these 96 students 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 45 weeks out of the year. Each year, 10 interns and several student teachers also work with the students. The ratio of staff to students is about what could be found at a traditional high school, if one counted all the kitchen, maintenance, and support staff. But at Eagle Rock, everyone teaches and works directly with students regardless of their job title.

Students, staff, and visitors can get together in several purposefully designed _community spaces_ at Eagle Rock.One such place is the hearth at which a gathering is held every morning.Sitting tightly together on the floor, students and staff begin the day as community.Classrooms and seminar rooms within the Professional Development Center feature round tables that promote community in several ways.Everyone can see and talk to everyone.Participation, an essential aspect of community, is visible to all.No one is at the head of the classroom. Round tables help everyone present notice when someone else fails to understand, and learners work together to help everyone progress.

For the administrators, there are no corner offices with closed doors. Administrative desks are out in the open, as are the desks of other staff. The noise level and commotion are distracting sometimes, but the value of having students and staff around the administrative work areas compensates for the chaos _ the administrators can keep a finger on the pulse of the school. Furthermore, the open office suggests a departure from a privilege and a leveling of authority.

GOVERNANCE AT EAGLE ROCK

Each staff member develops a plan for each budget year that includes a forecast of funds necessary for making that plan work.Final budget decisions are made through dialogue and conversation between staff and administrators rather than behind closed doors.Administrators make final decisions about curriculum, discipline, budget, and other key aspects of the school, but now without considerable input from students and staff.For example, Judy Gilbert, Eagle Rock_s first director of curriculum, chose to have faculty develop curriculum and work in trios across disciplines to review and revise it.Her process facilitated a feeling of ownership of the curriculum in everyone in the school.

Eagle Rock runs on a proposal system.Each member of the community _ student or staff _ may write a proposal to improve something about the school, such as activities or uses of time or space.Proposals have been written and approved for a climbing wall, an outdoor volleyball court, a mural in one of the student houses, and other items that individuals thought would make a difference in the quality of learning at Eagle Rock.Sometimes self-directed learning is accomplished when a staff member says to a student, _Write a proposal._The learning and responsibility that characterize proposal writing are important, but the feeling of power within the community is also critical.Students feel they can do something to improve their environment.

There are five _nonnegotiables_ at Eagle Rock: no alcohol, no drugs, no tobacco in any form, no violence (physical or verbal), and no sexual intimacy. When students break a nonnegotiable, they are not just breaking one of the five rules; they are questioning their commitment to being at Eagle Rock and achieving significant personal change. Students who have broken a nonnegotiable come before the community during a meeting. Questions and answers clarify for the entire community what has happened, and students are invited to send their recommendations on the consequences to the director of students. Individual opinions from students and staff pour in over e-mail and through notes. The decision is then announced and discussed in another community meeting. This form of discipline, though time-consuming, is worthwhile in terms of creating community.

Formal student governance is embodied in the Peer Council, a group of students elected by students who take referrals on problems and make decisions about how these can be resolved. Sometimes the problems are with other students _ tardiness, for example _ but sometimes they concern aspects of the school that can be improved. In addition to the Peer Council, a group of students and staff known as they Community Covenant Committee meets to address larger issues, then presents issues and solutions to the entire community at a community meeting.

In addition to the Peer Council and Community Covenant Committee, other leadership opportunities abound for students. Students can serve as a kitchen patrol crew leader or a house leader, or participate in any number of committees, such as the Intramural Committee or the Professional Development Advisory Committee.

EAGLE ROCK ACTIVITIES THAT PROMOTE COMMUNITY

The school schedule reserves times for the community to meet for morning gatherings, community meetings, men_s meetings, women_s meetings, and house (dormitory) meetings. Because the school is small and the schedule flexible, an instant assembly can be called around any issue or need.

Gatherings begin with announcements that keep the community connected and aware of what_s going on, then proceed with _a gift to the community._This gift might be a poem, story, article, or presentation that a student or staff member shares with the community.Gatherings always end with singing.The community meeting provides for an informal check-in, announcements, and singing, but also features a discussion (often around a story, article or current event) of the principles and values that govern Eagle Rock.The community meeting might include a lively vocabulary activity, an opportunity for students to get new books, or a reading of letters from former Eagle Rock students, staff, interns, and friends.Students are recognized at community meetings for being Three P Superstars.Three P stands for Punctuality, Preparedness and Participation, and students are acknowledged for accomplishing these expectations for a week or more.Receiving a Three P Superstar Award is exciting for staff and students alike, as it symbolizes the real progress a student has made at Eagle Rock.

Men_s, women_s and house meetings are mostly student-led. Men_s and women_s meetings provide an opportunity for students to join together in gender groups to discuss issues and do community building activities. House meetings allow students to solve problems related to living together in a small dormitory space.

Service is another common activity that promotes community both within and beyond Eagle Rock boundaries. Students average around 500 hours of service each year. A service marathon (EagleServe) occurs three times a year, during which students and staff deliver service in Estes Park and throughout Colorado. Finally, some classes are build around service-learning. Recently, students designed and build a nature center at a national historic site. In the process, they learned about the animals and plants of the Rocky Mountains. Service united people in something that is greater than themselves as individuals _ it is an excellent community-promoting activity.

Rituals also promote community.When students return from their wilderness trip, they are formally welcomed into the community with a ceremony, an Eagle Rock shirt and a climb up the rock dome known as Eagle Rock.They then make their first Presentation of Learning (POL) about their wilderness trip.End-of-trimester POLs are celebrations that have become ritualized.

DEFINING COMMUNITY IN EVERY SCHOOL

Community does not happen just at Eagle Rock, it is intentional.School staffs all over the country _ large and small, public and independent _ are understanding the importance of achieving community in order to help students learn, and they are discovering their own ways of doing so.One key aspect of achieving community seems to be discovering how to _get smaller_ so people can have opportunities to join together regularly.Houses, teams, schools within schools, and other mechanisms help when a school cannot otherwise reduce the numbers.Another key aspect of community seems to be walking the talk _ not only talking community, but finding ways to establish and build on community.Thus, schools must not only design mission statements or sets of values that promote community, but they must develop activities that purposefully bring people together.

Finally, it seems important for school staffs to understand the effect power and authority have on establishing community. A traditional hierarchical approach can hinder students and staff in establishing community. Powerless people often do not see the point of contributing to something larger than themselves, and people in power can find it difficult to give away their authority. How people work together _ adults with adults, students with students, and adults with students _ is the ultimate mechanism by which a group of people becomes a community.

Lois Easton is the Director of Professional Development at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center, Estes Park, Colorado.Formerly, she was the Director of the Re:Learning initiative of the Coalition of Essential Schools.She also worked as Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for the Arizona Department of Education.The Eagle Rock Professional Development Center welcomes educators who would like to study how to keep young people in school, engaged in learning, graduating, and doing something worth-while with their lives.

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