Eagle Rock School: An Ethic of Service

Eagle Rock School, located in Estes Park, Colorado, is two schools in one: a school for high school age students and a professional development center for adults, particularly educators. Year-round, residential and full-scholarship for high school students, Eagle Rock enrolls young people ages 15-17 from around the United States in an innovative, nationally recognized learning program. With a capacity of 96, the student body is diverse in many ways, but all students share two common characteristics: young people who apply to attend Eagle Rock have not experienced success in traditional academic programs and, for the most part, they have given up on the expectation of graduating from high school.

Eagle Rock’s mission is stated in two phrases, one pertaining to our work with young people and the other to our work with educators. “An Eagle Rock student has the desire and is prepared to make a difference in the world,” and, “Eagle Rock has a positive effect on schools in the United States.” Our emphasis on service-learning is essential to our dual missions. Our approach to service-learning embraces a range of activities extending from direct service within our school community to integrated service/academic experiences reaching far beyond the Eagle Rock campus. Programs such as Eagle Serve, chores, kitchen patrol, housekeeping, service special, Legacy Projects, many academic course activities and most community-based projects fit within the rubric of “service-learning.” At Eagle Rock, service learning isn’t a stand-alone program; it’s the framework of everything that we do.

Eagle Rock is a value-driven school. This means that our values, embodied in the seemingly incongruent saying, “Eight Plus Five Equals Ten,” are the source and purpose of ongoing conversations around curriculum, daily living, organizational decisions and more. The value of service shows up through the themes (service to others), the expectations (participating as an engaged global citizen, providing leadership for justice) and the commitments (serve the Eagle Rock and other communities through the contribution of my labors, become a steward of the planet, practice citizenship and democratic living). Eagle Rock’s commitment to integrating service and community brings these ideas to life.

Service-Learning in Many Forms
At Eagle Rock, students are expected to contribute approximately 500 hours of service per year through chores, service-learning courses, independent projects and school-wide service projects. In the process of serving, students help maintain the school as a functional community within a larger social system. Service work also applies to each student’s personal growth wherein learning is directed first and foremost toward the individual’s emotional and psychological development.

Opportunities for service occur from the time a young person is being considered for admission as a prospective student to the time he or she graduates and moves on, we hope, to a life of service. A prospective student is one who has made it far enough through the admissions process to warrant a three-day visit to the school. “Prospectives” join other students in conducting chores on campus, including serving the community meals. Once admitted to the school, students are required to participate in a 25-day wilderness experience. During this extended stay in the backcountry, students are exposed daily to the Eagle Rock values of leadership, communication, compassion, responsibility, knowledge base, healthy life choices, fortitude and perseverance, and authenticity/overcoming self-deception.

The wilderness service project, an integral part of this program, takes place just after students complete their three-day “solo,” which consists of living alone in a simple shelter with a small amount of food and water and without communication with any person for 72 hours. This is a time to reflect on one’s life and what has been learned over the past three weeks. Following this extraordinary solo experience, students regroup for the service project. The wilderness service project may consist of building a trail, building a foot bridge, restoring native habitat, planting trees or some other hands-on activity. The intent is to provide students with an opportunity to give back to the land that has taught them so much and to engage in one of the fundamental Eagle Rock School values: “Service to others.” Many students make a strong connection with the service project, as this account makes clear: “After days of backpacking, searching for water, and a 72-hour solo, we were given nearly three days to do service in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. We were working in an area called Revis Ranch, which has recently become part of the wilderness area. It has tons of barbed wire fence enclosing different areas. Our task was to take down as much of this fence as we could. We were trying to restore the area back to its natural beauty. A ranger showed us the most efficient ways of taking down the fence so we wouldn’t further hurt the land. By the end of three days, we compiled what we had collected and were able to figure that we had taken down roughly 400 yards of fence. We took before and after pictures to see the difference we had made. Besides learning how to work with different tools, and the different ways of not getting eaten alive by the fence, I learned how to work with people of all levels, in terms of work ethic, skill, and different personalities. I felt good about what I was doing. I could see the difference I was making. I am planning a return trip to revisit the area I was able to help.”

Upon returning to campus, new students complete their first reflection paper, articulating the learning gained during the wilderness trip. At this time they also begin moving toward full integration in the Eagle Rock community. And as it was during prospective visit and wilderness, so it is for the veteran: Eagle Rock students continue to engage daily in experiences that emphasize the value of service. Within a few days of their return to campus, new students are assigned to chore teams where they work alongside veterans and staff members to help maintain and run the campus physical plant. Chores include the upkeep of buildings, the operation of the greenhouse and garden, woodcutting, firewood delivery, groundskeeping, residential resupply and other functions essential to the school’s operation. While most chores are done four times a week during a 30-minute slot between second period and lunch, some chores, like woodcutting, take place in a two-hour period once a week after classes. Students and instructors work together during chores, collaborating on work assignments, developing a system of accountability and supporting one another as a team. If students are late, unprepared or not participating during chores, they may receive one or more “dings,” which, as in any other class, can lead to loss of campus privileges or make-up work early Sunday morning.

Kitchen patrol (KP), probably the most prominent, labor intensive service activity on campus, is fulfilled by each student working at least two meals per week for up to two hours at a time in a scheduled rotation. Veteran students, serving as KP leaders, are responsible for assigning duties and supervising each team. The kitchen depends upon well organized KP teams. The chefs, along with meal preparation, teach students kitchen skills and oversee all food handling operations. Credit toward graduation is earned by each student developing essential culinary skills and performing KP assignments. In her final essay before graduating, one student noted that KP was the first form of service she did at Eagle Rock. After completing over 750 hours of service in the kitchen she had this to say, “Most people don’t realize that KP is a form of service. They think that it is slave labor of some sort. I enjoy being in a kitchen. I like when people are enjoying the food that I made or the salad bar that I prepared, and I feel that it is a good way to give back to the school.” Another student, writing in his final essay, recalled a lesson in the kitchen that had come just the day before, while preparing his graduate meal: “Yesterday I was in the kitchen all day for graduate dinner. I was working nonstop for about eight hours. It was a lot of work. I realized that food preparation and presentation is very tedious and requires fortitude. To think that (the chefs) do that almost everyday is incredible. I have new respect for them and appreciate the food so much more now that I have performed that service.”

Housekeeping is another aspect of every student’s service-learning experience. This activity is organized and managed by students in each house, with oversight and supervision provided by the houseparents. At the beginning of each trimester, students come up with the standards and system for cleaning the bedrooms and common areas of their houses. Each house posts a schedule with individual and group assignments that are reviewed on a weekly basis. Some houses conduct reflections on the strengths and challenges of their housekeeping during weekly house meetings. Efforts are ongoing to resolve conflicting interests between the need for cleanliness and respect for how individuals choose to keep their personal space.

Many incoming students perceive service-learning experiences at the school as “forced work” or “manual labor” to be avoided, downplayed or endured. Over time, the majority of students come to appreciate these activities and projects as substantial parts of their overall learning experience. “I came into service,” wrote a first year student, “with only the notion of it being a punishment. Now when I hear the word ‘service’ I get a mental image of tutoring, woodworking, moving someone’s furniture, gardening and much more. At this point in time, I feel that service is two-party enjoyment instead of just benefiting the recipient. I truly believe I have learned so much as a person and as a person of service.”

A recurring theme in student writing about what they’ve learned through service at Eagle Rock relates to changes in attitudes and feelings toward themselves, others and the environment. One student describes it like this, “When I first came to Eagle Rock I considered service as punishment; in fact when I heard that Eagle Rock required service it discouraged me away from wanting to be here. As I pursued my stay here, I began to get used to service. I began to understand why it was beneficial. I also gained a great amount of appreciation for nature.” Another student noted that, “Service has had a tremendous impact on my life during the last three years. I have learned to appreciate the actions of everyone around me a lot more. Living a life without service is living a life in ignorance. I cannot fully appreciate what I am given until I understand how difficult it is to always be giving.”

During his final trimester, a soon-to-be graduate commented, “From my career here at Eagle Rock, I have gotten a lot and I’ve learned that there are definitely things that need improving. I feel that Eagle Rock has shown me what a group of people can do to change the world.” In describing her philosophy of service, another student summarized the educational aspect of service by saying, “There is a learning experience with any type of service project that is done. The learning can be on many different levels. Through the service I have done, I have learned new skills, I have learned how to work with different groups and types of people, I have learned more about fortitude and perseverance, I have learned how I work, and I have had time to think. Some of my most valuable service is done when I am able to be in silence, reflecting, thinking about what I am doing and why.”

During the five weeks of classes that remain after new students return from wilderness, they may enter either Service Special or Choir. Choir offers students an introduction to music performance, recognized here as a service-learning activity within a credit-bearing music course. Service Special provides an introduction to different types of service including direct, indirect and advocacy work. It gives students a chance to read and write about what service means on both personal and community levels, and to develop partnerships with others, on and off campus. In this course students are actively engaged in individual and group projects, either at Eagle Rock or in the larger community. Three-quarters of the class time in a given week is spent working on projects. The other quarter finds students engaged in discussion or writing about their projects. Discussions generally focus on some aspect of the service-learning cycle, ranging from preparation to action to demonstration to reflection. Readings are occasionally introduced to help develop understanding of the pedagogy of service-learning and to deepen engagement in specific projects.

Community-Wide Development of Service-Learning Options
At the close of their first trimester at Eagle Rock, qualified students enter into veteran status and are free to register for courses of their choice from the list of options provided during registration week. Courses are developed through a proposal process built around a constructivist framework incorporating a course description, possible credit, a major learning concept, essential questions, goals and objectives, standards and assessment design as well as service-learning components that strengthen the design. Each course proposal, submitted for inclusion by members of the instructional staff, is reviewed by other staff members and students before a final draft is incorporated into the upcoming schedule. The review process includes a peer pass-around as well as a reading by members of the “Service-Learning Advisory Council,” a group devoted to making the student voice heard in school planning and policies. Each new course proposal has space for a service-learning component, which may be included or omitted, depending on the overall design of the course and the preference of the instructor. During the pass-around, feedback and suggestions are provided to encourage thinking about how to improve the content and quality of the course proposal.

Principles of good practice in service-learning are emphasized in this process. First of all, projects that connect to the mission and values of the school and engage students and partners in responsible and challenging actions that serve the larger community are encouraged. Opportunities for students to reflect on their service experience strengthen proposals. Reciprocity and community partnerships are valued. Subsequently, these goals are supported by training, supervision, celebration, evaluation and assessment within the course to achieve successful outcomes. These evolving principles provide a framework for program development that directly connects the course proposal process to student-centered, community-based service-learning outcomes.

Connections Between Service-Learning and Academics
Students are awarded academic credit for their service involvement in several ways. In the wilderness experience, students earn credit directly for completion of the service project. They also are credited for the reflection paper and presentation of learning completed after the trip. Credit is earned in KP for passing a sanitation test, spending two trimesters as a successful crew leader and preparing two meals at the time of their graduation for the entire school. Chores, housekeeping, all-school service activities, independent service and service-learning projects in courses or seminars contribute to credit in service-learning through completion of the following: Service Reflection Paper (first year expectation), Legacy Project (second or third year expectation), Philosophy of Service Paper (graduating trimester), Public Service Presentation (any trimester) and Record of Service Activities, submitted each trimester as part of the Presentation of Learning (POL) packet.

The Public Service Presentation credit results from providing an audience with information, education or persuasive argument on a topic of interest to the community or group that is present. The Philosophy of Service paper requires students to account for their understanding of service and service-learning and what this means to them in the context of an Eagle Rock education and their future life goals.

The Legacy Project may be a course-based or independent service project designed to benefit the Eagle Rock community through the arts or crafts, an historical interpretation, a policy change, development or deepening of a service partnership, introduction of a new course, program or environmental service or other action. Students often start thinking about the legacy project early in their Eagle Rock careers and may work on a project over several trimesters. One Legacy Project, Bettering Da Family (BDF), was a committee of students engaged in the practice of democratic governance and youth voice to provide a forum and specific opportunities for students to step up and get involved. BDF introduced the radio band, Saturday jam nights and a new process for second chance students (students returning to Eagle Rock after going home for breaking a non-negotiable*). Other examples have included a video for the wilderness program to show prospective students and new wilderness staff that gives a realistic view of what the trip is like; Etched in the Rock, a collection of Eagle Rock poetry from many students across the years; a large, wood sculptural rendering of the African continent showing topographical features, political boundaries, and results of colonization across the region; a batik portrait in recognition of a staff member who had contributed over ten years of service to students and the school; totem poles built and erected on the school grounds to celebrate the presence of nature and the awakening of student learning; numerous and various images and renditions of “The Spirit of Eagle Rock,” symbolized by proud eagles as well as other naturalistic and abstract art forms; a visual art piece called, “The Need to Be Loved,” designed to remind the community to not disregard the value of love; and several murals decorating houses, classrooms and lodge walls across the campus. A reflection paper addressing the learning associated with the project and demonstrating a solid grasp of service-learning must be submitted with the completed legacy project to round out this assignment.

Purpose That Transcends the Self
Service-learning at Eagle Rock lends itself to interdisciplinary study, to collaboration across the curriculum, outreach beyond the campus confines and a deepening understanding of what it means to live in community. Service-learning is all about developing partnerships and engaging students in real-life experiences where math, science, language, history, music, the arts, human performance and personal growth meet and find expression in life. Yet there is a more fundamental objective that sparks interest in service-learning at Eagle Rock School. The overarching goal of service-learning, as we have sought to make clear in this article, is the emergence of an intrinsic value and purpose, or ethic, within our students that transcends the self. In reflecting on his service experience as an elementary school tutor a current student put it this way:

“(Through tutoring,) I learned that I could make a difference in someone’s life and help out other kids…When I first started with service I wasn’t planning on learning anything, I just wanted to get the credit out of the way, but as you can see I have learned a lot. I feel that the meaning of service isn’t just helping the community, though that is a big part of it. I feel that service is about finding peace with myself and doing positive things that aren’t necessary for me to survive but are good for me.”

However we describe the action, whatever form engagement takes, this is the outcome that really matters when it comes to measuring the success of service-learning today.

Eagle Rock School’s Values: 8 + 5 = 10
8 Themes
Individual Integrity
Intellectual Discipline
Physical Fitness
Spiritual Development
Aesthetic Expression
Service to Others
Cross-cultural Understanding
Democratic Governance
Environmental Stewardship

5 Expectations
Developing an expanding knowledge base
Communicating effectively
Creating and making healthy life choices
Participating as an engaged global citizen
Providing leadership for justice

10 Commitments
Live in respectful harmony with others
Develop mind, body and spirit
Learn to communicate in speech and writing
Serve the Eagle Rock and other communities
Become a steward of the planet
Make healthy personal choices
Find, nurture, and develop the artist within
Increase capacity to exercise leadership for justice
Practice citizenship and democratic living
Devise an enduring moral and ethical code

Activities and readings for the Service Special course have been drawn from the following books as well as other resources:

Growing Hope: A Sourcebook on Integrating Youth Service into the School Curriculum by Rich Cairns and Dr. James Kielsmeier (National Youth Leadership Council, 1995)

Voices of Hope Service-Learning Guide edited by John Graham (Free Spirit Publishing, 2006)

The Complete Guide to Service Learning: Proven, Practical Ways to Engage Students in Civic Responsibility, Academic Curriculum, & Social Action by Cathryn Berger Kay (Free Spirit Publishing, 2004)

Learning Through Serving: A Student Guidebook for Service-Learning Across the Disciplines by Christine Cress, Peter Collier, Vicki Reitenauer and Associates (Stylus Publishing, 2005)

A Practitioner’s Guide to Reflection in Service-Learning: Student Voices and Reflections by Janet Eyler and Dwight Giles and Angela Schmiede (Vanderbilt University, 1996)

Community Service-Learning: A Guide to Including Service in the Public School Curriculum edited by Rahima C. Wade (State University of New York Press, 1997)

Courses that exemplify ongoing efforts to incorporate service-learning into all aspects of the curriculum include the following:

  • Musical theater and performance courses such as “Choir” and “Summer Theater”
  • Courses in which students develop creative skills and learn to produce things that meet community needs such as “Art Sale,” “Sacred Benches,” and “Connections in Wood”
  • Science and environmental science courses such as “For the Birds,” “The Three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle),” and “ERS Unplugged,” in which students work with community partners to produce valuable research data, analysis and reporting that increases understanding of ecosystems, energy systems, native plant and animal life, water quality and biological systems, in many cases building upon the work of partnering agencies and organizations including Cornell University, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Fish and Game, and regional recycling programs
  • World language courses such as “The Guatemala Experience,” where an immersion experience in language, culture and service takes students to work in a small, rural community in Central America
  • Societies and cultures courses such as “Close-Up,” where students study national issues and government systems take a trip to Washington, D.C. and come home to a hands-on civics project in the local community
  • “4-Corners of Culture and Service,” which includes literature, culture and service from a Native American perspective on the Navajo Nation
  • Human performance courses like “Soccer and Service” in which students develop their teaching skills by coaching teams in the local youth league “Summer Olympic Games” where students developed a course around an international event bringing our community together in celebration of teamwork, competition, creativity and the human spirit

Eagle Rock School’s Non-Negotiables

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Drugs
  • Intimate Sexual Relations
  • Violence

Eagle Rock School is a CES Mentor School and part of the CES Small Schools Project. For more on Mentor Schools and the Small Schools Project, please visit www.essentialschools.org.

John Guffey actively supports student engagement in community-based service-learning as the service-learning instructional specialist at Eagle Rock School & Professional Development Center. He can be reached at jguffey@eaglerockschool.org