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Fred Tjardes students playing soccer in Gunter Field

Cubs Temporarily Roaming, Learning Among Bears on Campus

Along with the thousands of students learning on the University of Northern Colorado’s campus this year, there are about 125 of them that look a little different. If you’ve seen them walking through buildings or playing on Gunter Green, you may have noticed they're about half the age of a typical UNC student and their peals of laughter are an entertaining and welcome reminder of just how much fun school can be.

Along with the thousands of students learning on the University of Northern Colorado’s campus this year, there are about 125 of them that look a little different. If you’ve seen them walking through buildings or playing on Gunter Green, you may have noticed they're about half the age of a typical UNC student and their peals of laughter are an entertaining and welcome reminder of just how much fun school can be. 

During the 2022-2023 school year, K-8 students attending the Fred Tjardes School of Innovation in Greeley temporarily relocated their classrooms to the second floor of UNC’s Tobey-Kendel Hall. The relocation was the result of conversations that began in November 2021 when District 6 approached UNC to inquire whether there was space available on campus to house the school while they awaited the completion of their new building, and the university happily stepped up. 

“When Deirdre (the superintendent of District 6) called to ask about the possibility of hosting the Fred Tjardes School of Innovation at UNC, it was an easy decision,” said UNC President Andy Feinstein. “UNC was founded to address teacher preparation needs within our community and Colorado, and we continue to seek opportunities to expand upon the mission that launched our earliest work. I am pleased that we were in a position to offer assistance to District 6, one of our important local partners. Now more than ever, we need strong collaborations to support our state’s learners and educators.” 

So, since August, this means that 6-, 9- and 13-year-olds have been packing up their backpacks every morning and walking into their classrooms on a college campus. 

“It’s cool, it kind of makes me feel older to have all of these college kids around me,” 10-year-old Aniylah Velasquez-Buxman said.  

Though the location is a change, Fred Tjardes School of Innovation has always aims to educate its students in a non-traditional environment and focus on tapping into the student’s natural curiosity to explore and create. All the classes are referred to as ‘bands’ since they are combined with two grades. For example, second and third grade students will be in the same ‘band’ together all year long. The curriculum also steers away from paper tests, worksheets and memorization. 

“We teach based on loops of learning, it’s more of a fully integrated system than what you usually see at a school,” explained Tatum Monaghan, Ed.D., who teaches a band made up of third and fourth grade students. “So, for example, our last loop [theme] was ‘Adapt’ and we try to tie everything into that theme. Then at the end of the loop, students make their own projects based on research and they present them to the community.” 

Now that the school is temporarily housed on UNC’s campus, the teachers and students are continuing to explore different learning environments.  

“I love it,” Chess Bond, who teaches sixth and seventh grade students, said. “I remember the first day we came to look at the space and our students saw Gunter Field for the first time and realized that it was going to be their new playground. Their faces just lit up and they ran through the grass. It was one of the most precious things I’ve seen.” 

Bond and Monaghan may be a little biased on how enjoyable interacting and learning on UNC’s campus can be since both are alumni.  Bond graduated from the Secondary English Education program in 2021 and Monaghan received her doctorate in Educational Studies in 2022. But many students at Fred Tjardes share the same sentiment – having a wide-open field in their backyard has been an easy adjustment. 

“I think it’s really fun,” 9-year-old Maxim Pierce said. “We get more area to play, we learn new things and meet new people.” 

“The school year has been good on UNC’s campus because we have more space for outdoor activities,” 13-year-old AJ Riehl added. “It gives us a lot more freedom, especially because we have choices between fields so bands can use multiple fields at once.” 

Above: Fred Tjardes School of Innovation students discuss going to school on UNC's campus

Monaghan said when they found out UNC had enough space to house their students for the year, there was an obvious opportunity for collaboration. With UNC known as a teaching institution, Fred Tjardes and UNC administration knew they could tap into the pool of future educators and have them hold some of their classes, including P.E. on the beloved Gunter Field. 

“We’re working with a couple of professors in the School of Teacher Education and their students are coming over and teaching exploratories,” Monaghan said. “Exploratories are what typical schools call music, art and P.E. So, they’re teaching anything from martial arts to geocaching.” 

One of those School of Teacher Education professors is Christine Kyser, Ed.D., who has been having her college students plan 6-week units and implement their lessons in a safe and supportive environment for the K-8 students. 

“The collaborators and students have been so welcoming, their passion and enthusiasm are evident as they truly want my pre-service teachers to learn and grow,” Kyser said. “Through this experience, one of my students will be doing her student teaching with Monaghan in the spring.” 

This provides UNC students with hands-on experience in classroom management, differentiation and engagement strategies while working alongside practicing teachers. And on the flip side, it allows the K-8 students to learn from different teachers, both student-educators and professors.  

“We’ve had some of our classes go sit in on college classes in the Psychology and Literacy departments,” Monaghan said. “The Audiology program also had us participate in a Dangerous Decibels program and our students learned a lot from that. We’ve even had some professors and graduate students conducting research in our classrooms.” 

Many of the Fred Tjardes students are happy to welcome the new faces into their classrooms and explore the different buildings on campus. 

“In the library, I like how quiet it is and they have dual monitor setups so we can multitask and get work done faster,” Riehl said.  

And there’s a benefit to being surrounded by much older peers. 

“It makes you feel smarter, I have this urge to learn more and become them when I’m older,” 13-year-old Shawn Beard said.  

Bond says teaching his students on campus has given him the perfect opportunity to start conversations about higher education and the students’ futures.  

“They look at these college students as where they could be,” Bond said. “I get a lot of questions about what the dorms look like, what it’s like to go to college and I even had one kid look at me and say, ‘can I go to college?’ And I said ‘of course’. I don’t think he thought of college as an option and being on this campus makes it seem more real and more of a possibility for them.” 

So, while the decision for Fred Tjardes students to go to school every day on UNC’s campus was circumstantial to the availability of a building and will only last through May 2023, it’s unlocked a new resource all parties involved don’t want to close the door on.  

“We’re making connections that are going to last,” Monaghan said. “Having access to all of these resources is good for us teachers, it’s good for the students and I think it’s good for the teacher-ed students that can get hands-on experience with our students.” 

Just take it from Velasquez-Buxman, 10, who said the college students make her feel older.  She doesn't want her journey with UNC to be over. She is one of the many cubs training to be a Bear. 

“I really want to go to UNC,” she said. “I love the mascot, he’s so cute. Being the Bears is a good choice because they are strong and brave.” 

And there is no doubt the young learners are leaving an irreplaceable mark on the UNC community too.  

“I have enjoyed seeing Fred Tjardes students on our campus, and I hope to see them back as UNC students in a few years,” Feinstein said. 

"It's inspiring to enter Tobey-Kendel and hear the laughter any joy of learning," added Kyser.

– written by Sydney Kern

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