The Art of Building School CommunityDecember 2, 2009 | Suzie Boss
At Eagle Rock School, in Estes Park, Colorado, the alpine air is so thin, it literally takes your breath away. For most of the 96 teens living and learning here, the Rocky Mountain setting couldn't be more different from the city streets they've left behind.
The promise of a fresh start is what brings kids here from all over the country. And, as I learned during a recent visit, nearly everything about this unique place is designed to deliver on that promise.
Since 1993, Eagle Rock has been providing life-changing education for teens and immersive professional development for educators. This powerful combination is funded -- with little fanfare -- as a philanthropic initiative of the American Honda Motor Company. The financial support means that kids who have dropped out -- or been kicked out -- of high school can enroll free.
To stay, they have to avoid certain nonnegotiables, such as violence, and be willing to challenge themselves mentally and physically. They get used to learning in a fishbowl, too, with a steady stream of young teachers coming to hone their craft during extended fellowships.
There are many lessons to be learned from Eagle Rock, but one that stands out from my short visit is the effort it takes to build community. From the school's big ideas to its daily routines, everything reinforces this community ethic: Students and staff eat side-by-side in the cafeteria and share in duties. They play on the same intramural teams. They abide by the same set of agreements, from being good stewards of the planet to giving freely of their talents.
Kids live together in houses where getting along is a necessity. They learn at their own pace in small, interdisciplinary classes. They get used to being of use to the larger community through frequent service projects.
Mornings at Eagle Rock start with Gathering. These daily meet-ups offer anyone -- staff or student -- a chance to speak up about a burning issue. On the day I was there, Gathering was even cozier than usual.
Our visiting group from the Buck Institute for Education added more than a dozen adults to the meeting. But the kids didn't seem to mind. They just squeezed a little closer on carpeted steps in front of a hearth, and welcomed us into their world.
Four kids from East Coast cities kicked off the conversation. Their beef? "People make fun of our accents, and that's annoying," said one girl. Then they set the record straight with a fast-paced presentation, demonstrating with plenty of humor that urban culture is highly localized.
Depending where you're from, water might sound like wota, "but that doesn't mean we're stupid," cautioned one boy. They followed up with a quick glossary: kid means friend, brick is cold, mad is a modifier. So when it gets really cold in Colorado, kid, it's mad brick outside. Audience members showed their approval by waving their hands using the American Sign Language gesture for applause.
Looking around the room, I noticed a few things missing from more typical teen gatherings: no headphones or personal music devices, no TV sets, and no video games in sight. Computers in the school library are used only for learning activities, not for socializing online. "We want to avoid anything that can be a barrier to community," explained Dan Condon, associate director of professional development. Students even forswear romance during their initiation period, when an extended wilderness experience teaches them about trust in a small-group setting.
On the flip side, I saw kids really listening -- to each other and to adults. I saw walls covered with artifacts of projects that push students to think deeply about what they are learning and why it matters.
And I saw genuine care for the environment. After lunch, kids were happy to point out that the trash from more than 120 people fit into one small basin; everything else from the meal was either eaten or composted.
It Takes a Village
Building this special community takes ongoing effort and attention to what may seem like small details. But clearly, it's the big picture that matters most. This is a school determined to change the future for kids who have gone missing from public education. Every Eagle Rock graduate receives a college scholarship of $14,000. This money doesn't come from corporate sponsorship; it's raised by the Eagle Rock staff.
In this tight-knit community, such generosity comes with the territory.
Eagle Rock also aims to influence the larger education landscape by sharing its example. Do you see ideas about building community that could transfer to your school setting? How does your school go about reinforcing community values? Please share your suggestions.