Helping Students Become Productive Citizens Mr. Robert Burkhardt, Head of School, Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center

Mr. Robert Burkhardt, Head of School, Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center

On the founding of the Eagle Rock School

When project members visited several sites as part of their effort to identify a new community service undertaking for American Honda, they encountered a lot of people telling them that young people in their towns, communities, and states were dropping out of high school in droves and that this problem had to be dealt with. After deciding to embrace this social issue, the company sent the team back to revisit facilities around the country to investigate the reasons underlying their success, leading to the opening of the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in September 1993. I joined the school in April 1991. When American Honda contacted me, I was involved in the administration of a school for dropouts and runaways in San Francisco and in helping young people find work.

In opening the school, we chose a location in a natural setting that was easily accessible yet removed from nearby communities, and we worked to give the place a “soft” feel reminiscent of a mountain cabin by avoiding the traditional look and feel of a school and minimizing the impact of the structure on the surrounding natural landscape. Then we developed the school’s curriculum and philosophy, looked for teachers, and began recruiting students.

Teachers and students all share the Eagle Rock Philosophy at the morning gathering

Eight Themes, Five Expectations, Ten Commitments

We asked ourselves questions like, “What do we want students to think about? What do we want them to learn?” First of all, we recognized that what we were building was a school, so it was only natural and reasonable that we expose students to intellectual learning and art (expressions of beauty). We also felt that it was important for students as members of society to give something back by putting their own learning to use and being productive citizens. Of course, we also believed that sustainability and social responsibility were important. In particular, we considered environmental responsibility to be an important part of life at this school. In this way, we formulated eight themes. Then we developed five expectations along with eight themes based on a debate about what abilities graduates should have and what knowledge they should take with them from this place. Several months after we had formulated the eight themes and five expectations, the first students arrived at the school. When those students participated in a series of outdoor activities, we sensed that our system was still lacking something, and in response we created ten commitments to serve as a sort of code of conduct for each student.

8 Themes

Individual Inteqrity

  • 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

Believing in the potential of youth

Students who were unable to graduate from high school because school life wasn’t a good fit for them come to the Eagle Rock School to study. Yet when we bring other educators to our school, they are surprised to see how positive our students are. They wonder why the techniques they try at their own schools don’t seem to work out very well.

We discuss class schedules and curricula with teachers who come to train at our school and search for approaches with the potential to prove effective for their students. We want to demonstrate that success is possible for both educators and students who are on the verge of giving up.
Most of our students succeed, but some do not. We have an understanding at Eagle Rock that everything you do is your own decision, and we encourage students to make the right choices.

Some of our students make the decision to leave the school before they graduate. When they get away from this place, they realize for the first time how much they love the school.
We recently had seven students graduate from Eagle Rock and go on to college with their hearts full of great expectations for the future. But it wasn’t always clear that they would be able to graduate. These children had ability even before they came here, but they didn’t have self-confidence. Now they are full of self-confidence. That fact gives me great joy.

A discussion-oriented class

Mr. Burkhardt points to the hometowns of ERS graduates

A Professional Development Center fellow and ERS students

The Professional Development Center

This school does not exist solely for the sake of the students. Through the Professional Development Center, the spirit of the Eagle Rock School has spread throughout the United States.

For example, a graduate student from the University of Colorado Boulder who recently visited Eagle Rock will earn a credit by conducting research at the school. Another woman wrote a dissertation exploring how students are impacted by the school’s outdoor program for her doctoral degree. We also provide guidance for other schools and also help them create their own programs and curricula upon request.

We have also built a nationwide network of 40 to 60 high school principals and offer training to help them ensure their respective schools can fulfill their educational missions in the most effective way possible.

Starting around the year 1994, we began inviting students interested in entering the teaching profession to visit the school for a period of two or three days every February to help tap their potential as teachers through interaction, study, and research with our students. We expect that the lessons learned from their experiences here will spread throughout the U.S.

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