Reflections on the Past Academic Year — A River Runs Through It

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Imagine peering over the edge of a cliff and staring down on millions of gallons of raging water the color of chocolate milk and knowing you’re going to be in the midst of that turmoil in just a few moments. Thirty years of white water paddling experience suddenly feels inconsequential.

Lava Falls is the largest rapid on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. Sure, there are a couple safe routes, but finding them is certainly not easy. It demands a team effort and even then there are no guarantees. Even though you might pick what appears to be a solid route from shore, there’s much to be done once you enter the chaos.

A few years back — in 2009 — I found myself in just such a spot. Many questions ran through my head. Will the route I choose work? Will I have the skills to adjust to changing circumstances? Will I have the presence of mind to stay calm when a misplaced oar stroke could flip my raft — or worse?  Is risking my life a good idea?

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I remember looking at my 18-year old son Max sitting at the front of my raft. What would I say to his mom if things went wrong? I can’t explain the attraction to living life on the edge, but I know I’m drawn to that activity like a moth to flame. It’s a life where the course is unclear, where a lifetime of experience is called into question, where I must rely on others for safe passage. It’s a life where the spoils of defeat are not inconsequential, and where the victories are addicting. I always want more.

On Sept. 3, 2012 — the day I stepped into the role of Eagle Rock’s head of school — I remember experiencing the same feelings I did back at Lava Falls three years before. Truth is, just as I can’t run a river by myself, I require plenty of expert help to run a complex and meaningful organization like Eagle Rock.

Reflecting back on this past year, the biggest lesson I think I’ve learned is the vital importance of teamwork. I’ve worked here for 13 years and I understand the “path of the river” well. But it’s one thing to stand on the shore and talk about the right path, and quite another to be “at the oars” in the current.

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I have a great executive team in the form of Philbert Smith, Michael Soguero, Susan Luna, and Jen Frickey, as well as an amazingly dedicated and talented staff that keep this ship afloat and  on course. Our aspiration this past academic year was to “become more responsive to student needs, both locally and nationally.” We charted our course for the year by creating four overarching objectives to focus our work, which I shared in an earlier blog post, and in a moment I’ll share the results of that work.

But first, I want to acknowledge that we’ve accomplished a tremendous amount of work on campus and around the country that has been covered in previous posts and isn’t captured in our focused objectives. In addition to doing the “work” of Eagle Rock, we’ve also experienced the passing of two very dear on-campus members of the Eagle Rock community — Mary Strate and Rick Gaukel — and one graduate, Casey Whirl. Our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to Mary, Rick, and Casey’s families. You will always be remembered.

I won’t drag you through volumes of reflections from my year, but I do want to report out on how we’ve done with our four big objectives. Here’s a quick look at the highlights:

Objective No. 1: The Professional Development Center (PDC) /School relationship at Eagle Rock is inextricably interdependent.

  • Students are traveling with PDC staff externally and being used more intently on campus. In addition our staff has become more involved on campus and around the country, either traveling to work with networks of schools around the country or working much more intensively with schools visiting our campus. We’re connecting visiting educators in much more intentional ways to the experience of visiting Eagle Rock and we’re sharing more of our experience nationally.
  • Our two key PDC staffers, Michael Soguero and Dan Condon, have worked tirelessly this year to increase our professional development reach and have nearly maxed out their ability to work with other networks of schools. This capacity limitation was recognized by our board of directors and resulted in additional resources to add a new PDC position and some early brainstorming to increase our virtual support to schools via increasing Internet resources.
  • Our primary strategy — or “hedgehog” as Michael fondly calls it — is helping other progressive schools get better within their own context instead of exporting practices. This year we’ve found a hybrid where we integrate the goals of the organization with the knowledge and expertise we’ve gleaned from our own school experience. For example, if a school wants to implement proficiency-based graduation requirements, improve their internship program, or design curriculum to support teaching for understanding, we not only do an asset-based assessment in their context and help them carve out an agenda based on their desires, we also bring expertise in those particular areas of reform to the table. As a result, we’re able to listen attentively to specific needs of the networks in which we work, facilitate change process for them AND bring our own expertise from working on similar initiatives in our own school. We believe professional development should be forged in real schools with real students and this year we’ve made some good progress connecting the efforts of our school with the PDC and visa versa.
  • Finally, we’ve experimented with the PDC team supporting Eagle Rock School improvements in similar fashion to our approach to other schools. The PDC team supported the Jugaad Initiative (explained in more detail below), and we both improved our school and learned a lot about how to better support internal school improvements.

Objective No. 2: Our admissions process is now aligned with the capacities of our school.

  • We have settled on 72 students as our target for full enrollment. We have a comfortable tolerance as low as 68 and a high of 76. When we are between 62 and 68 on the lower end and 76 and 82 on the higher end, we are in an area of concern. And when we venture below 62 or above 82, we are in a place where the school design really does not function very well.
  • We’ve designed instructors’ teaching loads to sustain 72 students.
  • We have plans to phase in a reduction of beds in each wing from eight down to seven.
  • We’ve aligned the admissions process with timelines that work for resource requirements of our wilderness program (i.e., hiring staff, permits, etc.), our business office needs, and our medical assessment process.
  • We’ve created an enrollment forecasting system to plan admissions needs for upcoming trimesters.
  • While we feel good about arriving at our overall enrollment of 72 students as ideal, we continue to have more male than female applicants and students. We will put focused effort into addressing this imbalance in the coming year.

Objective No. 3: The quality of student life at Eagle Rock is improved.

  • We launched the Jugaad (a Hindi term meaning making the best use of the resources at hand.) initiative with a focus on supporting engaging experiences outside of class time. Jugaad yielded some good information on what students find to be engaging during time outside of classes. We will use this information to be more mindful of the types of experiences we offer outside of classes. See the daily schedule for more information on how we will organize the day and staff the full student waking hours differently. We’ve piloted experiences that generally fall along the continuum from recreational to educational to personal growth and development.
  • After considerable thought, we’ve adopted a restorative milieu that will frame the way we build our relationships and think about our community. We are working with the International Institute for Restorative Practices over the next couple of years to deepen our ability to “live in respectful harmony with each other.” Restorative practices are both proactive relationship-building skills and habits, and reactive processes for dealing with violations of community norms and expectations. For a number of years we’ve been using a restorative justice (RJ) process to deal with non-negotiable violations. RJ is a response to harm process and is but one tool in the restorative practices framework. Look for future updates on our progress as we become a more restorative community.
  • In August the director of our Professional Development Center, Michael Soguero, lead us through an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) Summit that resulted in a number of “Re-imagine Success” initiatives. Some of our accomplishments from the AI process include an Eagle Rock Alumni Association, a motivation to graduate process for all new students, affinity groups, an improved peer mentoring program, more student internships, mid-trimester house retreats, an outdoor leadership group, and work on revamping the School’s daily schedule.

Objective No. 4: Our schedule and human resources are reallocated to best align with organizational needs.

  • We are wrapping up a yearlong assessment of how our daily schedule and the way we schedule staff supports or inhibits student success. As a result, the flow of the day has been revamped and we’ve shifted some staff schedules to better support our priorities. First, we’ve changed the start time for the day to better accommodate adolescent sleep needs . Secondly, we wanted the schedule to support engaging and meaningful experiences outside of classes — particularly in the evenings and weekends. In order for that to occur, we saw the need for more staff to have the evenings be part of their regular schedule rather than an add-on at the end of an already busy day. To facilitate this, we have moved our “gathering” from the morning to after lunch. Gathering is the centerpiece of an ongoing conversation about community and we felt it was important to have everyone attend. Now we can have some staff start their work later in the day, attend gathering in the afternoon and offer engaging experiences in the evening.
  • In looking at the totality of the residential experience here, and after researching a number of other boarding schools, we came to the conclusion that we needed to create a new Residential Life Coordinator position to support the residential life experience. Through generous support and long-term vision, our board of directors approved adding this new position to our staffing structure. We imagine this person bringing an elevated focus to residential life with the ultimate goal of helping us become more responsive to student needs.
  • As mentioned in the first objective above, the PDC has become much more efficient in terms of how Michael and Dan are using their time.  Given our mission of having a positive impact nationally on progressive school reform and youth re-engagement efforts, we’ve identified a need for additional staff support in the PDC. Toward that end, we have redefined our registrar responsibilities and merged those with our Life After Eagle Rock coordinator’s responsibilities. The merger of responsibilities makes sense on a functional level, and that in turn has also shifted Anastacia’s (former registrar) responsibilities toward more focused work with the PDC. Additionally and again through generous support and vision from our board of directors — we now have an opening for a new Professional Development Center Associate position to help with the increased demand for Eagle Rock professional development services around the country.

As you know, organizations are no more than the sum of everyone’s efforts moving toward a common goal. In this blog post, it is impossible to do justice to all that has occurred this year. Just like conquering Lava Falls was very different from thinking about conquering Lava Falls, so was actually experiencing this year as the head of an amazing place.

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I might be at the oars, but I operate under no illusion that I’m actually responsible for our progress. As I mentioned above, making Eagle Rock work is a whole community effort and I’m blessed every day to work with amazing students and staff. I have all of them to thank for the beginning of this great adventure. Just as the river current will take you places you thought you’d never go, so it is with Eagle Rock. We’ve certainly made a few miscalculations and ended up in places we couldn’t have imagined, but at the end of the day we’re dry side up and a good ways further down the river! It has been a tremendous first year for me, and I look forward to sharing plans and results such as these for years to come!

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About the Author: Jeff Liddle is the head of school at the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center — a nationally recognized, tuition-free residential high school in Estes Park, Colo., that offers a second chance to students who have not been able to succeed in a traditional high school setting, and a professional development center that supports high schools nationally in re-engaging youth in their own education. As head of school, Jeff is responsible for leading Eagle Rock’s school community and its executive leadership team; interfacing with the organization’s board of directors; and, overseeing the vision and financial health of the organization.

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