UNC Graduate Student's Coursework Leads to Plan for New K-6 School

University of Northern Colorado Professor Kevin Pugh requires graduate students in his educational psychology course to develop a proposal for a new school and then present to the class as if they're applying for consideration to school districts.

Now, for the first time, a former student is taking her concept and trying to make it a reality.

Doctoral student School of Education faculty member Courtney Luce hopes to create a new K-6 school in Greeley based on her coursework. After three years of thinking about how the educational system could be improved for students who don't necessarily thrive in a traditional classroom structure, she took the final project of designing a school as the perfect time to pursue her ideas.

She has a website, the backing of other teachers and community members, a name (the Fred Tjardes School of Innovation; named after one of Greeley's most popular educators), an idea for a location (near UNC, in the heart of Greeley) and a tentative opening date (fall 2017).

Her idea for the school received added traction when she happened to run into an an acquaintance, an educator himself, while writing the proposal.

"He asked what I was working on, and when I told him, he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket," Luce said. "He had some of the same ideas written down and really became interested in the project.

"He had another educator friend who also was interested, and we all planned to meet. Once we did, we saw that we all shared the same vision, and we moved forward from there."

Before completing the school proposal assignment, students in Pugh's Trends and Issues in Educational Psychology classes study critical topics in education. Pugh says examples include "direct instruction vs. discovery learning, accountability vs. Finnish reform models and creativity vs. academic achievement."

"We study a set of these hot topics by looking at the research and/or arguments on each side of the debate," Pugh said. "The school proposal project is designed to force students to think about the meaning these debates have in a real-world context and make actual decisions."

Pugh describes Luce's initiative as going "way beyond expectations" for the course.

Luce's model for her school takes an approach to learning she calls "loops" — examining a topic from a broad perspective and understanding how it's applied to various academic areas. This way, students can work hands-on and become an "expert" on a small scale about that one topic.

For example, in studying photosynthesis, students would work with a teacher to research, write and present proposals for a community garden they design and construct. They then would explore the history and effects of community gardens in urban areas.

As Luce acknowledges on the website, much work still lies ahead in getting the school up and running. That includes building community interest to show support for the school.

Luce has been able to share her vision with the community through meetings, the proposed school's website and a Facebook page. She's developing a following of people who are keeping up with the process. She also plans to participate in Greeley community events this year to get the word out to more people.

Just getting the ideas down was an immense task she said.

We've really spent the last year just refining our vision until we feel like we have a solid model," Luce said. "Getting that into motion will be the toughest part."

- UNC student writer Taylor Trubia contributed to this article.