Our Schools

Early Childhood/Preschool

PK8

Elementary

Middle

High

Thompson Career Campus

Featured Profile

Jane Harmon’s 25-Year Journey as a Principal

Featured Profile graphic with Jane Harmon, Mountain View High School principal
Jane Harmon, with her bike, stands next to a Loveland Heart sculpture

It’s been 25 years since Jane Harmon got her first job as a principal. The past six of those years were spent at Mountain View High School. Now that she can count the weeks to retirement, she will tell you it’s all a blur. That’s not the whole story. The truth is, Jane can recount many of her experiences in detail, from starting out as a 27-year-old principal in a small school in White River, South Dakota, to her first days as a principal at Mountain View, where she was in awe of how engaged the students and staff were with their new leader.

“The staff at Mountain View functions in such a manner that it feels like your home,” she says. “They want to work together. Even in the biggest struggles we’ve faced … this staff sticks together in a way that is supportive and collegial. Even when we disagree, we can still be respectful. We can decide on a path and move forward. I believe the students see that and they become part of that.”

As a child growing up in a small town in South Dakota, Jane always believed she would be a teacher. Working as a library aide in high school and having strong role models shaped her goals even further.

“I had great influences of teachers in my town who were phenomenal and made me feel special and valued,” she says. “My mom was not a teacher, but she was one of those special people who could help you learn a lesson out of everything that happened around you.”

The Impact of Supportive Family and Mentors on Jane Harmon

Jane Harmon with her mother and daughter

Jane’s mother was also there to guide her when Jane found herself facing single motherhood just after graduating from high school. Jane recalls feeling like she had ruined her life. She couldn’t imagine how she could go off to college and raise a baby on her own. But her mom had a different perspective.

“My mom told me ‘This changes nothing,’” Jane says, reflecting on how she went off to college at Southwest Minnesota State University carrying a baby as a freshman. She took one trimester off to have her daughter. Then, she headed back to school to pursue the career she had dreamed of.

“I had to keep trucking, and that was my life, raising a child and making sure I provided for her in a way she deserved,” she recalls. Jane says she had immeasurable support from her parents and siblings, all of whom helped her realize she could still get her degree.

“I owe my parents such a debt of gratitude for helping me see that my mistake was not something that couldn’t be overcome. It was life-changing, but it didn’t have to be in terms of my goals.”

Jane says that her experiences as a young mother and college student have given her a lot of insight. They have shaped how she approaches her role as a principal.

“Because it was such a failure to me in my own mind, I haven’t often shared that I was a young parent,” Jane says. “But I think the lens it has given me is that we can make mistakes, but what’s most important is that we surround ourselves with people who genuinely care for our well-being, and that we need to be that kind of support for students. We need to build that relationship of care and consideration for the difficult things that people are going through.”

Looking Back on a Fulfilling Career

Mountain View High School class of 2023 in graduation gowns with Jane Harmon in front

As this school year comes to a close, Jane is reflecting on the highlights of her 25-year career as a principal, including a highly successful Freshman Academy and Freshman Seminar program at MVHS. She also is proud of the fact that, after doing the math, she calculates there are roughly 4000 diplomas with her signature on them out in the world.

“It’s a funny thing to think about, that you’ve touched that many people’s journeys,” she says. “The rewards are in the individual students’ successes as they went out into the world and influenced others. I don’t think of one spectacular reward, it’s in the many little successes, lots of individual lives you are able to touch every day.”

Jane says that of all the memories she cherishes about her years in education, she will miss the people the most. This fall, Jane and her husband will move to Arkansas to be closer to her daughter’s family, and the three young grandchildren Jane adores. And though she will miss Colorado and her beloved school, Jane says she believes she has made a difference. She removes a plaque from her desk that was a gift from a co-worker and reads:

“A sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have, but how many leaders you create.”

Gandhi

“Hopefully that’s what it’s all been about,” Jane says.

Kaitlyn Tollefson, BHS Senior and Mental Wellness Advocate

Featured profile graphic for Kaitlyn Tollefson from Berthoud High School
Kaitlyn Tollefson with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy at Children’s Hospital Colorado

For Berthoud High School senior Kaitlyn Tollefson, mental wellness isn’t just something she hears adults talk about – it’s the issue she has planned all her career goals around.

The Thompson School District Boettcher finalist has been aware of the importance of mental health since kindergarten when she was diagnosed with ADHD after struggling with a difficult teacher. In middle school, learning of a friend’s suicidal thoughts motivated Kaitlyn to start figuring out what she could do to help.

Now in high school, Kaitlyn has put together an extensive resume consisting of multiple seats on various wellness committees and boards and many hours spent testifying before the Colorado State Legislature about the importance of focusing on mental health, especially for school-aged youth.

“Making the world a better place has always been something I’ve cared about,” Kaitlyn says. “I want to leave change in the world. I don’t want to be sitting in my eighties or nineties thinking, I wish I would have impacted more people.”

Kaitlyn Tollefson has testified before many committees, including the one that led to the bill’s passing, which mandates that health insurance companies in Colorado cover one mental health visit per year separate from physical exams. But Kaitlyn says there is still a lot of work to be done in addition to changing the laws.

“We can target the political aspects all we want, but if mental health isn’t destigmatized and talked about in day-to-day life, there’s not going to be much progress,” she says.

Kaitlyn presents ti-fold on Relaxation and Distraction Kits for Kids

Kaitlyn’s parents, both doctors, supported her in standing up for what she believed in from a young age. Some of her earliest activism involved creating Science Fair projects that helped people with anxiety and difficulty focusing. She did projects that sought to find healthy ways to manage stress and pain and created something she called Calm Kits – an idea she came up with after researching ways to destigmatize mental health issues. The purpose of the kits is to help others learn how to make their own kits and use them to safely manage stress. Kaitlyn has received several grants to make and distribute the kits in various places, including many schools.

By age 15, Kaitlyn began testifying before the Colorado Legislature and working toward convincing adults that it’s critical to take mental health concerns seriously.

“In a perfect world, no one will struggle with mental health issues because of lack of access or education,” Kaitlyn Tollefson says. “Mental health is ever-changing. We can always pull us forward and make the world better.”

Kaitlyn is also the president of BHS’ chapter of Sources of Strength, which aims to provide support for students to rely on when they need it, and emphasizes how important it is for everyone to have a net to catch them when they are in crisis – one of the reasons she’s decided to make a career out of working toward improving mental health care.

Kaitlyn Tollefson speaks at panel about mental wellness

“We are getting there. We have to take little steps since there are so many facets,” she explains. “We’re not in a place that is great, and maybe not even good, but we are going forward. Schools are starting to see that.”

Kaitlin will be attending the University of Colorado at Boulder this fall. She aspires to study psychiatry and public health before going into a career in politics so she can create change in the culture of how mental health is perceived.

“Suicide is the number one cause of death for our age range,” Kaitlyn says of her concern for her generation’s mental wellness. “Colorado as a state is last in a lot of ways caring for mental health, but those statistics are not set in stone. They’re something we can change, and I’m really passionate about staying in Colorado to make changes.”

Featured Profile: Zoe Rollins from Thompson Valley High School

Featured Profile graphic for Zoe Rollins from Thompson Valley High School as part of Women's History Month
Zoe Rollins poses in Thompson Valley High School uniform with volleyball in hand

When Zoe Rollins and her sister Emily got in a car accident two years ago that would change their lives forever, the last thing on Zoe’s mind was inspiring others. 

“One day, I was preparing for (volleyball) regionals, and the next day I couldn’t even sit up in bed,” she said.

Nearly two years after that fateful crash, Zoe is being honored by Sportswomen of Colorado with the 2022 Inspiration Award. 

“To be able to win an award for inspiring other people is amazing,” Zoe says. “I am really happy that throughout my journey, I was able to help other people because it is very encouraging to me to keep going knowing that other people are inspired by me.” 

So much has happened to this Thompson Valley High School senior in the past two years as she battled her way back from the snowy-weather accident that shattered her L1 vertebrae and paralyzed her from the waist down. Zoe’s family lives in the foothills, and she and Emily were driving home from volleyball practice the day before Regionals when the car slid and went over the edge. The car rolled multiple times, and both girls were ejected. 

Zoe Rollins uses walker while recovering from car accident

“When I was there, I wasn’t really thinking about the outcome,” said Zoe. “Obviously, I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t see my sister. I didn’t even know if she was alive.” 

Emily had a broken pelvis and collapsed lungs, among other injuries. After spending a week in the hospital, she was able to go home and play volleyball again her senior year. 

But Zoe’s injuries were more severe. She spent more than a week in the Intensive Care Unit and then went to Craig Hospital to work on rehabilitating after her spinal cord injury. 

“I couldn’t even realize that what happened to me actually happened,” she explains. “I don’t think my mind really comprehended that it’s not something that can just heal itself.” 

Two years after the accident, Zoe still goes to therapy 2-3 times a week and is still paralyzed below her knees. Yet the progress she has made is phenomenal, including driving herself around using hand controls, walking with crutches for short amounts of time, and even serving occasionally for her beloved Thompson Valley High School state-champion volleyball team. 

“Surprisingly, now I’ve gotten more independent,” Zoe says. “I drive myself to school every day, do a lot for myself. If no one is home in the house, I can still do things.” 

Zoe Rollins inspires a friend to go for a walk with mountains in the background

As for how the accident changed her mentally, Zoe says she still has hard days, but the challenges she has faced have also made her grateful. 

“I have days where I wonder, why did it happen to me? But I’ve gotten used to thinking about that stuff,” she reflects. “I’ve learned how to take it and make something better out of it. Sitting here thinking about how my life was before isn’t going to change anything.” 

Instead, Zoe has made it her goal to do all of the things she loves – even if she has to do them in a different way. 

“You go from living one life to a completely different one,” she says. “I met a lot of people who don’t even leave their house. I still hang out with my friends and do the normal things a teenager does. That has helped my mental health a lot, going back to the things I was doing before.” 

Zoe Rollins pictured with teammate and trophy for Girls Volleyball Class 4A 2021 State Champion

Zoe says that the support of her parents, sister, volleyball teammates, friends, and healthcare workers has been immeasurable.

“The biggest thing is I can’t really go anywhere by myself,” she says. “But my friends will always help me. My parents are super supportive. Nothing I’m doing am I doing by myself.” 

As she enjoys her senior year of high school, Zoe is planning for her future as well. She is considering pursuing a career as a psychologist at a spinal cord injury hospital. 

“Where would I be now if nothing had ever happened? I’ve made so many new friends,” Zoe says. “Obviously, I didn’t want it to happen, but I have gained a lot.” 

Co-Responder Team Bridges Mental Health Gap for Youth in Thompson School District

Mental Health Co-Responder Team stands in front of Mountain View High School

For Larimer County Sheriff’s Deputy Brendan Solano and licensed clinical social worker Maryann Ramos Flynn, each day they spend working as co-responder team members in Thompson School District is unpredictable. Still, they all have one thing in common: They provide a unique opportunity to advocate for youth. 

Larimer County Sheriff’s Deputy Brendan Solano and licensed clinical social worker Maryann Ramos Flynn stand in front of sheriff's vehicle

Providing support for the approximately 15,000 students in Thompson School District requires the work of hundreds of staff members, including the collaboration of people with all different areas of expertise. Thompson School District’s inaugural co-responder team is one of the best examples of how effective cooperative work can be.

As a sheriff’s deputy, Brendan has worked in schools as a school resource officer and is trained in working with students who are struggling with mental health issues. Maryann works for SummitStone Health Partners and has spent most of her career working with young people. 

Since last November, Brendan and Maryann have been Thompson School District’s first co-responder team, handling crises in our schools. The two contract with the school district through a program designed to partner with various stakeholders in the community to help students in need of mental health support. While Brendan can address the law enforcement aspects that sometimes arise with more severe incidents, Maryann provides support as a mental health professional. 

“Our biggest success is to be advocates for students,” Maryann explains. “We are unique in that co-response is a relatively new program in Colorado. It’s only offered in one other school that I know of. Kids have always deserved this service, and now Thompson School District is a leader in saying how much they care about kids. They are addressing it by providing this service to their kids.” 

Brendan Solano sits in chair in classroom

Brendan and Maryann are based in the district Administration Building but spend much of their workdays responding to calls in schools throughout the district. 

“The nation as a whole has discovered there’s an issue with mental health, and a lot of people in crisis don’t know what to do,” Brendan says. “It’s a problem, and we recognize the need.” 

In addition to providing schools with law enforcement support, Brendan and Maryann are also trained to respond to students in crisis and help provide families with care that is less limited than what school counselors can offer, including visiting families’ homes and helping students and their families secure assistance through more extensive community resources.

“Our primary focus isn’t the law enforcement – our school resource officers take care of that. We’re more focused on continuing care,” Brendan says. 

Maryann agrees that the goal is to connect students to whatever help they need and assist families in supporting their children. 

“Our goal is to be able to have kids be in school safely and function at a healthy level so they can be productive members of society,” Maryann says. “Sometimes what the school can provide is limited, and then families don’t know what to do next. That’s been my greatest joy of this job, getting information into families’ hands so they can continue to do the good work of caring for their families. Colorado needs to support their youth.” 

When Maryann and Brendan are not busy responding to calls, they do preventative work in schools, talking to students about how the co-responder team can help them and what other resources are available. The pair do not separate during the work day but rather work in tandem to address the multifaceted aspects of situations when students are experiencing crises.

The team has the added benefit of being bilingual, as Maryann is a Spanish speaker whose mother immigrated to the United States. Maryann says this allows the Thompson School District co-responder team to bridge additional gaps that maybe be happening between students and school staff. 

“Our youth today are more open to mental health care than ever before,” Maryann says. “We have youth who want to take care of their mental health, and we need to realize that part of whole-person care is addressing mental health needs.” 

Often that involves connecting families with outside agencies that can assist them and their students. 

“It’s important for them to know we are here to partner with them, not to take over care,” Brendan says. “We do believe that families most times are doing their best and kind of get stuck in how to support their student. We help families get what they need.” 

Staff Profile: Allison Aue – Transition Teacher, Community Connections; Extended School Year Coordinator; Secondary ILC Liaison

At Community Connections, every day is something new working with students with special needs, and for transition teacher Allison Aue, that’s exactly why she loves her career.

“Working with this population, no days are ever the same,” Allison says. “There’s no standard we have to meet; we are just making sure the families feel supported. We get to focus on what they’re good at.”

Community Connections is a Thompson School District program serving students who have already completed their four years of academic instruction in a TSD high school but could benefit from additional support for various reasons. Through Community Connections, these students can work on different life skills based on their ability level, learning everything from cooking to money management to community access and vocational skills.

In the state of Colorado, public school education ends for most students when they graduate from high school. But for some students who might need additional support, the state provides funding for districts to educate them through age 21. Community Connections students can stay in the program until the end of the semester they turn 21.

“We provide [a] transition for when they lose that regular school day support of the district,” Allison explains. “We are really just here to make sure they are set up for the future.”

Allison says the program is designed to individualize education based on each student’s needs and abilities.

“The instruction here is functional. It’s very specific to them and what they will use in their life,” she says.

This might mean finding a job or managing more complex household tasks for some. For others, it might mean making a simple meal for themselves or learning to be responsible for their belongings.

Since Allison started working at Community Connections three years ago, the program has grown significantly, doubling in size to almost 40 students. Allison credits the effective program and an extremely strong staff for the growth.

“I am very lucky to work with my teaching partners. Our [paraprofessionals] are also amazing. Everything that happens here is because we work so seamlessly as a team,” Allison says of the three teachers, six paraprofessionals, and administrative staff tasked with working with the Community Connections students.

For Allison, working at Community Connections was a surprising but natural career path that evolved from needing additional credits when she was working toward becoming a math teacher. She became a peer buddy and earned a bachelor’s degree in special education.

“I had never even considered working in this field, never even knew it existed,” says Allison, who has a master’s degree in Special Education Administration and Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. “My goal is to support each student in being as independent as possible – vocationally, socially, and in the community. We want them to have purpose and happiness.”

While the Community Connections students do not have a strict rubric or set of goals that have to be met, each of the students does have an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, which sets goals and provides structure for a student’s educational team to measure how well those goals are being met. “We’re not giving grades and credits,” Allison says. “Our focus is making sure that we’re meeting the needs of the students.”

Supporting students and families takes many forms, with one example being that each student has a cooking day where they plan a meal, shop for ingredients, and prepare the meal. Other programs include working with the Loveland Youth Gardeners to grow and sell produce and running Thompson Clothing Closet, which provides clothing items for TSD students in need. As Allison sees it, the students in Community Connections have just as much to contribute to their community as the community has to give back to them.

“So many of them have never been seen for what they can do,” she says. “That’s what we do, we see them for what they can do, and it gives them a place to fit in. I just want all of these families to feel like their student is the most important one to someone. Someone cares.”

Katie Erkman I.T.S. Apprentice, Loveland High School

When Katie Erkman joined the Lucile Erwin Middle School Robotics Team many years ago, it created a career path for the now-senior at Loveland High School that would result in years of experiences Katie never imagined as a child dreaming of one day becoming a professional singer.

“STEM came out of left field,” explains Katie (who uses they/them pronouns). “I am a nerd and love math. You don’t have to love math to be in engineering, but that’s what keeps me going.” 

Katie’s years participating in LEGO robotics and later on the robotics team at Loveland High School prompted them to look for more opportunities to learn about technology, becoming one of the first students in the Information Technology Pathway at Thompson Career Campus. 

“I began when it was just starting out, and I was one of three women in the program,” Katie recalls. “It really opened my eyes into more of a career side of tech rather than just the creative side. I started thinking, ‘How can I help the most people?’”

As it turned out, there were many ways for Katie to use their skills to help others, starting with serving as a summer intern for Innovative Technology Services for Thompson School District. As interns, selected students are paid to work for Innovative Technology Services over the summer and are also given high school credits. After working as an intern, Katie was given the opportunity to apply to be one of a handful of apprentices who work as I.T. technicians in the district throughout the school year.

“My goal is to learn as much as I possibly can, because you never know what you don’t know until you learn.”

“It’s so eye-opening,” Katie says. “I find it really interesting. My goal is to learn as much as I possibly can, because you never know what you don’t know until you learn.” 

Katie said the most interesting part of being an apprentice for the I.T.S. team has been learning how to apply the classroom lessons to doing their job in the field.

“At T.C.C., we discuss everything in theory. We learn what a router is and how it works. There’s a lot of textbook work and visualizing,” Katie explains. “It’s different when I can help my teacher with their laptop. One day I’m a student; the next day, I’m a staff member. When you’re helping the principal at the school you go to, it gives you a sense of pride.”

As a senior with just one class in the building at Loveland High School, Katie spends most of their time doing college classes through Front Range Community College and working as an apprentice. This year is Katie’s second year in the three-year apprentice program, and the ambitious senior has goals of attending college to study engineering and continue with a career in technology. 

“My dream school is the School of Mines,” Katie says. “I want to go there so bad. They have a really cool A.I. program I want to be a part of that would be really fun to learn about and explore.” 

Katie says one of the best parts of the opportunities they have had to learn technology through Thompson School District has been learning to overcome their anxiety and be more comfortable talking to new people. 

“There’s this habit to get so involved in your own little world, especially as a teenager,” Katie explains. “I do have a lot of anxiety internally, but I feel like if you just put something out there, even just a little bit, even if it’s wrong, it’s better than retreating. You get so many more opportunities by showing who you are. The world is so much better when you’re more rounded as an individual.” 

After graduating next spring, Katie will enter the third year of the apprenticeship, working full-time as an I.T. technician—something this self-described tech addict can’t wait to undertake. 

“It’s funny; my mom is like ‘you need hobbies,’ because tech has taken over a lot of what I do,” Katie says. “But I’m like any other teenager. I like to play video games and hang out with friends. I also really like reading—especially calculus textbooks.”

Sean Hedding, Music Director, Berthoud High School

Anyone who has been part of a competitive marching band program can tell you about the countless hours that go into creating the less-than-ten-minute performance – something Sean Hedding can explain in great detail.

This is Sean’s 14th year of teaching, and his third as the sole music teacher at Berthoud High, leading the choirs, the jazz and concert bands, the orchestra, and the marching band. In addition, he composes the original music performed by the marching band for competition, and writes music for the orchestra and other bands as well.

With just under 30 members, the marching band competes at the 2A level, performing the music Sean composes for them and using the formations, or ‘drill,’ that he designs.

“I’m the one-man stop. I write the drill, I write the music,” Sean says, describing how he originally decided to do the work himself in order to work within the BHS program’s financial constraints.

“I didn’t really have a budget,” he explains. “I started out of necessity. I knew that I had the chops to write it, so I just jumped in and did it.” But there’s so much more to planning a competitive marching band piece than most people understand, and most larger schools purchase music to play and hire a drill writer to create the routine for the musicians to follow on the field. Sean says that a fully custom-written show can cost upwards of $7000 just for the music, with a drill writer adding thousands of dollars on top of that.

“In a perfect world, all the band teacher has to do is teach the kids how to do what other people have designed,” Sean says. But that’s not the case for a smaller program, where Sean often works around 60 hours a week preparing for competitions. Fortunately, though he says the workload can be overwhelming, Sean is thrilled to be able to compose.

“I love writing music, and I’ve written for a long time,” he says. Sean got his bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado, and holds a master’s degree in Music Education from the University of Florida. But Sean knew way before college that he wanted a career centered around music.

“As a kid, I was in love with the Star Wars movies. I knew in band I wanted to play trumpet because that’s the main instrument they use,” he says. Although Sean’s main instruments are brass, he learned (as all music directors have to) to play all of the other instruments, as well as how to teach vocal music and play piano accompaniment for the choirs.

Part of Sean’s job at BHS includes directing the popular show choir, which participates in its own competitions, as well as maintaining an ambitious performance schedule involving dozens of engagements each year.

His goal is to get more help for the department and keep growing each of the programs, all while continuing to direct a successful marching band – in itself, a full-time job.

This year, the band performed a program written and designed by Sean, called “Neon.” Each section of the performance reflected a different neon color to go with the mood of each movement – pink, blue and green.

“All marching band shows are made up of feelings – what am I trying to get the audience and judges to feel – and moments. If you can have an audience remember a specific thing that you did, then that moment was successful,” Sean explains. One of the big moments of this year’s show was a dance section, where the musicians all set down their instruments and did a dubstep routine. “That’s probably what people will remember.”

Fortunately, BHS – like many music programs – has a lot of outside help. “Marching bands don’t happen without a ton of parent and community involvement,” Sean says. “So much more goes on than just trying to get the kids to stand in a spot on a football field.”

But it’s worth it, as Sean explains, from both the band members’ and the directors’ perspectives.

“For any kid that ever does marching band, it’s a life-changing experience. It’s as much a family as at home, because we spend so much time together,” Sean says.

Having a musical family is something Sean understands. He met his wife Natasha, a flutist, in the Army National Guard Band, and while he says they do enjoy some non-musical activities, including hiking, biking and camping, music is still central to almost everything he does. When he isn’t teaching, he plays in some community music groups.

“My escape from music at work is to go do music outside of work,” Sean says, laughing. “Music is my life. I can’t imagine not doing something with music.”

BERTHOUD HIGH SCHOOL REGIONALS

Mary Liakas, Junior, Thompson Valley High School

Mary Liakas, a junior at Thompson Valley High School, has spent years exploring many different interests and activities – more than she can even list off the top of her head – and it has taught her a lot about her goals.

“I think with anybody, you’re just interested in what you’re interested in,” she explains. “I’ve been very fortunate with the successes I have had. My mom is an elementary school teacher, so I kind of got a head start on reading and math. But I was taught that when somebody is not where you’re at, why don’t you talk to them? Why don’t you raise your hand and ask the question they are afraid to ask?”

It was that mindset that led to the creation of Varsity Tutors, the academic support group Mary started at TVHS to help her fellow students. She originally intended for the group to provide tutoring to student athletes to ensure they could remain eligible.

“For some students, exercise and health and wellness are their life. So if you can’t do what makes you happy because you’re not good in school, you shouldn’t be penalized from what you love. Why should they be penalized because they don’t understand a subject?” Mary says.

Mary explained that when two of her friends found themselves unable to play football due to their academic ineligibility, she had the idea to provide a convenient, school-based group of peer tutors, covering as many subjects as possible, for student athletes. TVHS principal Jaymie Cruickshank was very supportive of Mary’s idea, and allowed Mary to do a presentation for the school’s staff, where she received a lot of positive feedback.

“I started to think, maybe this could actually happen,” Mary says. She began to work out the details, which involved recruiting students to work as tutors during their Extended Learning Opportunity time, figuring out how to identify students in need of help, and working with teachers to get permission for tutors to come into study hall classes to help students in need of support.

It was during all of this planning that Mary realized there was a bigger problem to solve.

“My original idea, and the reason I created Varsity Tutors, was to exclusively help athletes,” explains Mary, who is a varsity tennis player herself. “But I would never turn a student away just because they don’t have the athletic capability. We end up helping a lot of non-athletes too. At this point, we don’t even ask people anymore what sport they do, because we’re here to help you learn, and your athleticism shouldn’t hold you back from getting help.”

Now, students coming for tutoring come from many different sources, including referrals from the athletic department for ineligible athletes, and students recommended by teachers for help. Varsity Tutors has 11 student tutors and helps dozens of students each week.

“I’ve learned that sometimes just to hear the information from peers, through a different voice or different explanation, that benefits everybody,” Mary says. “All of the teachers I’ve talked to are very excited about this program. Eligibility rates have gone up, Fs have gone down. It’s a very successful program so far.” Her next goal is to find an accurate way to measure the effectiveness of the tutoring group, and use the data to tweak the program.

For all of the time Mary has put into Varsity Tutors, it’s just one of the many areas to which she commits her time and energy. In addition to running the program and playing on the TV tennis team, Mary is also president of Thompson Valley’s DECA and FBLA clubs, sits on TV’s Principal Advisory Team, is in charge of social media and announcements for the TV Student Council, works part-time as a cashier at Scheel’s, is a member of National Honor Society and the City of Loveland’s Youth Advisory Committee, and says that she was recently honored to serve as the emcee for TV’s Homecoming pep assembly.

Mary hopes all of this hard work will translate into a career in business, particularly in finance, which she considers to be an important aspect of everyone’s lives.

“I was brought up with the value to use your voice to make positive change, versus not using it at all,” Mary says, crediting her mom Michelle (a teacher at B.F. Kitchen Elementary School) and her sister Emma (a freshman at Syracuse University in New York) with inspiring her to do her best.

“My mom is a huge reason I am as successful as I am. She says it’s doesn’t matter what grade I get or if I win or lose, it just matters how much effort I put in – and I can always do better. I can always put more effort in. If you start putting in effort now, it’s going to carry into adulthood.”

Dr. Bernadine Knittel, Counselor, Thompson Valley High School

As Dr. Bernadine Knittel reflects on the many years she has spent as a school counselor at Thompson Valley High, it’s clear she is just as committed to supporting students now as she was over two decades ago when she started.

“These students, I’m honored to be a part of their story and their journey through high school,” explains “Bernie,” as she is known throughout Thompson School District. “It’s tough to get through high school. A lot of them are dealing with a lot, even outside of school. When people ask me how my kids are, I ask, ‘which ones?’”

Bernie’s journey to becoming Dr. Knittel began years ago, when as a young child she loved playing school and “teaching” her younger cousins. Though neither of her parents had gone to college, they were adamant that their children would have degrees. “Education has always been stressed to me. I was the first one on both sides of my family to actually graduate (from college). It was always instilled in me as a young person that education was important.”

Knittel took the support and encouragement from her parents and ran with it, starting with an associate’s degree, then earning a bachelor’s degree in business. After teaching for three years, she was accepted to a master’s program in counseling, and from there, she knew she wouldn’t stop until she also had a PhD.

“Getting a PhD was my goal. I wanted to earn that degree to open up other opportunities, like teaching at the collegiate level, and expanding my knowledge and skill set,” she explains. It took seven years to get her doctorate, working full-time as a counselor at TVHS the whole time. Today, Bernie teaches several classes as an adjunct professor at the University of Northern Colorado, but she has never lost her passion for counseling high school students at Thompson Valley.

“By nature, I’m a pretty loyal person. Once I’m set, I’m set,” Bernie says. “You start building relationships with families. Just being in this area for 27 years, I now have the children of people I taught back in high school. It becomes your family. This is my second home.”

Knittel’s genuine love for TVHS is evident as she describes the uniqueness of the school and its students and staff. “I think we have a really diverse population in terms of interests. Our boundaries extend all the way up to the foothills. We pull from a pretty big area. There’s a lot of staff here that also went to school here, several faculty who have a connection to TV.”

As she begins her twenty-second year at the school, Dr. Knittel reflects on the many changes she has seen, and she is candid as she talks about the challenges facing students in our schools today. “The biggest challenge right now is navigating everything happening in our world right now: The pandemic, the political tension, back-and-forth transitioning.”

She also points to social media and the internet as both a blessing and a curse that today’s students face on their journey through high school. “They are bombarded by social media, and it’s not all negative, but I don’t think we had any idea how this was going to impact them. They might be socializing, but in a different way,” she says. “We try, as a system, to put some restraints on it, but if we don’t come together collectively, school, family and community, I’m not sure how we are going to win that one. It’s a systemic issue.”

Still, Knittel is up for the challenge, and her pride in her students is evident in the pictures of them that fill the walls of her counseling office at TVHS. She lives in Greeley, and though it’s very clear talking to her how devoted she is to supporting her students, she also believes in taking time for herself, her husband and her grown children. She enjoys camping with her husband and their two rottweilers in their camper, as well as regularly doing Crossfit. “You have to have self-care. As counselors, we’re the caretakers, but we need to take care of ourselves if we’re going to take care of others. Our work’s important, but so is our family life. That’s so important in the helping professions.”

As she nears a point where she could retire from working in the school district and pursue other career goals, for Bernie, the sky is the limit when it comes to what comes next. “I think everybody just needs to have that next goal. It’s part of what keeps you going,” she explains. “My dad is 77, and he still works. I say to him, Dad, why don’t you retire? He says, ‘I need to have purpose.’ We’re always reaching for that next purpose.”

Kimberly Tymkowych, Principal, Winona Elementary School

Kim Tymkowych isn’t sure when she realized it was her destiny to be an educator, but she thinks growing up across the street from an elementary school may have had something to do with it. As a child, she would stay after school and help all of the teachers, but it wasn’t until she went to college at the University of Northern Colorado years later that she figured out what she wanted to do.

“My path just kind of went that way,” she says. Now, after spending six years in classrooms teaching third and fourth grades, being an instructional coach for three years, working with eight different principals and being a principal herself for eight years, first at Centennial and then at Winona Elementary, Kim is more passionate than ever about what she does, and especially the school and staff she leads.

When Kim became the principal at Winona, the school had been placed on a Turnaround Plan through the state, meaning that the school as a whole was not making adequate progress on achievement and growth. As a result, the Colorado Department of Education did a diagnostic review to find the strengths and areas of growth for the school and give the staff some goals to work toward.

“I knew it was a struggling school and I took the job hoping it would push me as a professional and allow me to utilize some of my background,” Kim said. “The diagnostic was like a road map to guide us in the direction that we needed to go.”

Kim said the first step was making sure all of the staff were working together toward some common goals, which eventually led to their mission statement. “Every kid, every day,” Kim said. “That’s what we created as a staff. It reminds us that our work is making sure that we’re providing a safe and predictable environment for every kid, every day.”

Every kid, every day

At a school like Winona, where over 65 percent of the families qualify for free and reduced meals, and with a mobility rate (percentage of families moving in or out of the school each year) of 25 percent, this means not only providing an education, but often helping with other needs as well.

“Emotional support, clothing, food,” Kim explains. “We meet our students where they’re at when they come through the door.”

With a student population of around 300 and a staff of 43 adults, there is a lot of collaboration and teamwork involved in helping students succeed, including staff members getting to know families well so everyone can work together.

“We can look at so many individual success stories within our population. Our goal is to help them to know there are many ways to grow, and it’s not just about the academics,” Kim says. “We want to help them feel loved at school and increase their self-esteem and awareness of how to advocate for themselves. There are definitely some challenges and barriers along the way, but we work together to overcome them. This process takes time, but we have made tremendous progress already, especially in our school culture.”

Even with all of the big strides Winona has made as a school, Kim says there is still a lot of work to do. “I want to see our staff turnover decrease, as well as the academic growth and achievement meet and eventually exceed our state scores,” she says.

Kim said it typically takes three to five years to see growth in the areas identified in a Turnaround Plan, but the Winona community has been working hard to create change. “A big piece of our work is making sure everyone is a part of that work,” Kim says. This means building relationships amongst students and their teachers, something staff at Winona has worked very hard at. In a recent survey, Kim said that 98 percent of the students at Winona report feeling respected by their teachers.

“Our kids will show us respect and work alongside us more if they feel respected,” she says. “We’re trying to teach the kids to expect respect as well.” Kim believes this starts with building community at the school. “We want to focus on what our school is like on the inside, but also what it looks like from the outside,” Kim says. Recently, students at Winona raised money to have a heart for the City of Loveland’s City with HeART project installed in front of the school. Students also created the design on the heart and the school’s Art Club helped the professional artist to paint it.

Ali Ham, Science Teacher, Ferguson High School

Ali Ham has known she wanted a career in science since she was very young.

“My whole life was science,” Ali recalls, explaining how she spent her years in college exploring different science careers. She had wanted to be a veterinarian for as long as she could remember, but after working as a nurse’s assistant, she realized that although she loved interacting with patients, and loved the science and health aspects, she wanted to be able to work more with people.

That’s when she decided on a career in teaching. She started her student teaching at a middle school, but quickly realized that middle school wasn’t her passion, so she asked to be moved. She was placed at an alternative high school and immediately knew she had found the place she was meant to be.

“Before that, I didn’t even know what an alternative high school was,” Ali says. “But my heart will always be with alternative. There’s something about the vibe that I don’t think you could reproduce on a larger scale.”

li has taught science and health at Ferguson High School for four years and she says the unique population at the school is what makes it so special to her.

“My favorite thing about these kids is that they are so real,” she explains. “They want the truth and they want you to be a real person back to them. Most of them, even though they aren’t adult age, they’re already adults.”

Ferguson is designated as an Alternative Education Campus by the Colorado Department of Education, which means that at least 90 percent of the students are identified as at-risk.

“We get a bad rap in the community sometimes of having the ‘bad kids,’ but they’re not bad kids at all,” Ali says. “I love working at FHS so much, it’s hard to put into words. It’s a magical place with these kids. Many of them never really felt heard or seen at their other schools. Our school feels like one big family.”

Ali says that the smaller school size (FHS keeps its population at around 120 open-enrolled students) gives her the opportunity to not only teach her students, but to get to know them as well.

“Most of these kids have trauma in their background. I don’t usually know what that background is, but I know they have a story or they wouldn’t be here,” she says. “When I do learn their stories, whatever they may be, they impress the heck out of me that they even show up every day. Even as an adult, if I were going through half the stuff they’re going through, I would find it challenging to show up to work every day.”

But Ali says it’s the challenging backgrounds of her students that makes them so incredible to work with.

“Because these kids are so amazing, once they know you care, they will do anything for you,” she says. “I don’t ever let them tell me they can’t do something. There’s no ‘I can’t’ or ‘I don’t’ or ‘I won’t.’”

Ali’s style of teaching also involves giving her students as much real-life experience as possible, which may be why, in non-COVID years, she is known as the “fieldtrip queen.”

“I love it when I can take them out of the classroom and show them the things they are learning about,” Ali says. She often takes her students to the Colorado State University cadaver lab to learn about anatomy and says the firsthand learning provides something for her students that she can’t teach them in a regular classroom.

But providing these kinds of opportunities for her students often involves some creativity and Ali is committed to doing what it takes. Despite not having any formal grant-writing experience, Ali has pursued – and successfully secured – several grants for her school, including a Thompson Education Foundation grant for Chromebooks which was later doubled by OtterBox, and getting a grant from Noosa for nutrition and wellness classes.

“One of my biggest beliefs is that students should be informed. I want them to make healthy lifestyle choices,” she explains. “I really want them to gain real-life skills and to think through any situation that’s thrown at them. I want them to know where to find accurate information and how to use that information in a way that will actually help them.’”

Tia Thompson, math teacher, Turner Middle School

Tia Thompson has spent her life striving to be the best at everything she does. She’s been a professional cheerleader, a college soccer player, a fitness model and a model for Nike. She attended Texas A&M University on a soccer scholarship with a double major in math and science. Taking care of her health and fitness has always been second nature to her.

That’s why she wasn’t very alarmed when she started feeling weak and nauseous one day while she was teaching. She assumed it was just a mild case of the flu, and the doctors she went to agreed.

One week later, when she could barely see and had to use a cane to walk, Tia was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with neuromyelitis optima, a rare autoimmune disease that affects the eyes, nervous system and spinal cord.

Tia spent a month in the hospital. Within weeks, she lost all of her motor skills, and had a feeding tube because she couldn’t swallow and a breathing tube because her lungs couldn’t function. At one point, she weighed less than 80 pounds.

“I had never been sick a day in my life,” Tia says. “Suddenly I had to learn how to walk again.”

After spending weeks in the hospital, and recovering her eyesight and motor functions, Tia eventually was able to go back to what she loves: Teaching middle school students to love math.

Tia has been teaching for 14 years, and has been an 8th grade teacher at Turner Middle School in Berthoud for three years. Although she feels strong and healthy most of the time, a bout with the illness she now lives with is always possible.

“I’m either having a flare-up or I’m not,” she explains. Tia sees several doctors regularly for everything from check-ups to occupational therapy. She also has to get treatments every other month, similar to dialysis.

“I never know how I’m going to feel when I wake up every day,” she says. But she also explains that knowing the symptoms of NMO makes it easier to monitor. And, if she starts getting sick again, her sidekick Prince, her tiny Yorkie service dog, is there to help. Prince goes everywhere with Tia, including to her classroom every day.

“The kids can’t get enough of him. I have to put him up (in his enclosure in the classroom) because all they want to do is pet the dog. They’re feeling stressed? They pet the dog.”

Though NMO has come with many challenges, it hasn’t slowed Tia down. She is the head of the TMS Math Department, serves on the school’s social-emotional committee, and is the TMS Sources of Strength adviser. She also serves on the summer school committee and equity taskforce for Thompson School District. And those are just the things Tia does outside of her regular days of teaching.

Inside the classroom, Tia’s philosophy is based on her love of math, and her passion for helping her students love it too.

“I try to make it so they’re not scared of it,” she says. “You use it all of the time. Math is everywhere, so I have to get rid of their math phobia.”

But Tia has other lessons she hopes to teach her students as well.

“I’m the first teacher of color for content delivery for most of these kids. I bring with me my culture and background,” she says. “I’m just trying to blend the two together. I love my kids. I call them my babies.”

Tia also says that her illness has changed the way she sees some things about teaching.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it changed me, because I’m pretty gleeful, but the equity part is huge,” she explains. “I teach in different ways for different kids. I’m not taking for granted who will be able to see what.”

Tia will be the first to say that she has slowed down some with the chronic fatigue that is part of NMO, but that hasn’t changed her enthusiasm and energy for what she loves.

“I have a very exuberant personality, I think it’s a culture shock for them,” she says. “I just want so many kids to want to learn math. Who else is going to come and be excited about it as I am?”

Joe Vodjansky – TSD Safety & Security Manager

For Joe Vodjansky, a 2006 graduate of Thompson Valley High School, returning to Thompson School District to serve as the Safety and Security Manager several years ago seemed like a perfect fit.

Joe started his career in law enforcement, serving as both a patrol deputy and detention deputy with the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.

“I wanted to help people,” Joe explains. “In law enforcement, you encounter people who are going through a crisis. I wanted to help people through that and make them feel safe when they didn’t feel like anyone else was there to care.”

That desire to help make things better for people inspired Joe to pursue a career in education. After several years as an assistant football and wrestling coach for Thompson Valley High School, Joe realized he really enjoyed supporting students and helping them to achieve their goals.

“The sheriff’s office is a first-class agency, but I felt like if I was going to make a career change, I should do it while I was still young,” Joe says. He started out as a campus monitor at Walt Clark Middle School, and later became a threat assessment specialist for the district, managing student safety plans while keeping his focus on helping kids through tough times.

From there, it was a natural transition to managing the safety and security department for the district, a position that allows Joe to combine his passion for safety and law enforcement with his desire to help students. As the leader of the team charged with keeping TSD students safe, Joe oversees the district’s 14 campus monitors, responds to emergencies, and serves as a liaison between the district and the first responder agencies in our community.

It’s a job he enjoys, but also takes very seriously. “As of 2018, every kid in our school district is post-Columbine. I think that when Columbine hit, the unimaginable became possible. Our kids don’t deserve to think about that. My job is to deal with that so they can focus on this very important but limited time in their lives. It’s a gift that all of us can work together to give them.”

Joe also works closely with the 13 school resource officers serving in the district, and believes that his background in law enforcement is a huge asset to his current role.

“The biggest area where law enforcement has benefitted me is staying calm in managing an emergency,” Joe says. “A lot of my job is to make sure the what-if never happens, but be prepared if it does. Our main goal is to be preventative, not responsive.”

Joe believes the SRO team has a critical responsibility to help the students in our district, but he also thinks that, in many ways, they are in a unique position to support kids. “They provide an extra layer of safety, and help educate kids on things they might encounter,” he explains. “They talk about substance abuse, mental health, safe relationships. They support us in helping our students understand things that don’t necessarily come from a textbook. There are things we all learned in school that have nothing to do with science and social studies.”

Lately, Joe’s job has been even more challenging, as he has helped organize the Covid-19 response in TSD. From doing contact tracing to helping coordinate vaccines, and everything in between, Joe has helped to manage the unmanageable – but he is quick to share the credit.

“I love the people of TSD. Our people here are incredible,” Joe says. “They really excel. We all work together to make sure our schools are safe. All of us, every single district employee is part of our team to make sure that kids are safe every day.”

But despite the enormity of that responsibility, Joe says there is no other district – or job – he would rather be in. “Thompson is home,” he says.

Riley Locke, 5th grade student, Centennial Elementary

Centennial Elementary student Riley Locke likes many of the things other 11-year-olds do and when you ask her about her favorite hobbies, the list goes on and on. Riley does art, skiing, mountain biking, camping and crafts, and she loves math and science. She also plays piano and organ and loves to be outside and spend time with her friends.

But this quiet fifth-grader also has a passion for helping others, which she does using the sewing skills she taught herself by watching YouTube videos.

It started during the summer of 2019, when Riley and her brother Matthew had a lemonade stand and made $200. They decided to spend their money to buy toys for children in a safe house, and Riley says she learned from that experience how rewarding it is to help others. When COVID made it so they couldn’t repeat their lemonade stand success the following spring, Riley says she knew she had to come up with another plan.

Riley had learned to sew making superhero capes with her dad. She enjoyed sewing, so she started watching YouTube videos about how to make hair scrunchies. She was originally going to make the accessories for herself and her friends when it dawned on her that this might be the perfect opportunity to help others.

“I realized this is what I can do to help some kids that might need some cheering up,” Riley says.

Using some old t-shirts and hair bands, Riley made several scrunchies which she offered to her family and friends for $2 each. In no time, she was out of inventory and her mom took her to the craft store to get more fabric and hair ties.

“I just started sewing them,” Riley explains, and said that within months, she had sold more scrunchies than she ever expected. That’s when she learned about the patients at Children’s Hospital in Aurora.

“I thought about how hard it would be to be a kid in the hospital and not be able to have visitors or friends. So I wanted to buy toys to maybe make their stay more enjoyable,” Riley says. She took the money she had made and bought toys, books, art kits and Lego sets and delivered them to the hospital.

Since then, she has made two more deliveries to the hospital, spending more than $1500 on donations for patients, primarily in the oncology ward, but in other areas as well. Riley says she has fun choosing and buying toys, many of which come from wish lists provided by the hospital. She hasn’t gotten to meet any of the recipients of her generosity, but she hopes one day she will be able to.

“It makes me happy to help people that are having a rougher time than I am,” Riley says.

Although in the beginning her parents covered the cost of her materials, Riley said her little non-profit is now covering its own costs and recently even received a $250 grant from Thrivent to help pay for supplies. Though she doesn’t consider what she does to be a business, she does have her own business cards and uses the name “Riley’s Scrunchies.”

Centennial Elementary Principal Carmen Polka says, “Riley is a student who puts forth her best every day. She had this small idea that became a big idea. She understands the complexities of running a business to help others.”

Carmen says that despite Riley’s remarkable generosity and work ethic, the fifth-grader doesn’t brag about what she has accomplished. “Riley is a silent leader. She has that strong presence and is someone in the classroom making good choices and setting an example.”

For Riley, that means reaching out to others who could use extra help or a kind gesture. And she knows that’s something she wants to do for the rest of her life.

“I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up, but I know I want to help people however I can.”

Riley’s scrunchies are available for purchase locally and 100-percent of her profits go toward her donations. Contact us at ccrinfo@thompsonschools.org for more information.

Bart Mayes, Teacher, Mountain View High School

As a pre-med student at the University of Colorado, Bart Mayes knew one thing for sure: He was never going to be a teacher. Though his parents were both teachers in Thompson School District, Bart was sure that his passion was in science, not in education.

Now, having spent more than two decades as a teacher and coach, Bart will be the first one to say that his eventual decision to follow many of his family members into education was the best one he could have made.

Though he ended up with a degree in biology, Bart was soon offered a job teaching chemistry – the subject he disliked so much in college that he decided to switch his major. Of course, he plunged in headfirst, and was hired as one of the first group of teachers at Mountain View High School when it opened. He soon found chemistry was a natural fit for him.

“You learn really fast when you have to teach somebody else how to do something,” Bart says. “Who doesn’t like throwing chemicals together and seeing what happens?” Joking aside, Bart says he loves the intellectual stimulation that teaching chemistry provides. “Even after teaching it for 20-some years, it’s still a challenge,” especially since in addition to teaching the most advanced chemistry classes, Bart serves as the chair for the MVHS science department and also teaches a freshman-level class.

It’s especially challenging when you’re also the head coach of a high school football team. “I don’t know that I would ever recommend that someone be an AP chemistry teacher and be a head football coach at the same time. It’s very daunting,” Bart says.

But daunting doesn’t even begin to describe what Bart faced in the summer of 2018, when he and two of his fellow coaches were driving near Mountain View and were hit from behind by a vehicle going 60 miles an hour. The coaches’ car rolled five times, and Bart’s C2 and C3 vertebrae were shattered. He was put into a cumbersome halo, and was completely immobilized for over three months, missing the entire fall semester.

“It was the first time I hadn’t taught or coached in twenty-plus years,” Bart says. “It was a big life changer in many ways. It made me realize how fortunate we are, and how life can throw you a curveball.”

With all of the challenges came some surprising positive outcomes as well. Bart is filled with gratitude for his family, friends, co-workers and school district staff who were endlessly supportive and caring throughout the ordeal. And Bart says the accident has given him a whole new perspective, not only in life, but in the classroom as well.

“There were so many lessons, but the biggest was a mind shift from poor me. I learned how to change my focus from the negative. I have a lot of students going through times when life just knocks you down,” he says. “I’ve been there, where life has just sucker-punched me. What are you going to do? It’s been a paradigm shift from it being an awful thing – which it was – to seeing it as an opportunity.” That opportunity has been for Bart to share his story, which he says has been very therapeutic for him.

And now, a new challenge: Teaching and coaching in the age of COVID. Trying to teach a subject as hands-on as chemistry virtually has been difficult, Bart says, but even as hard as teaching during a pandemic has been, he can – again – find reasons to be positive.

“Any time a teacher looks back on how they teach something and tries to make that better in a significant way, that’s a good thing, and that’s one of the results of COVID,” he explains. “That’s a definite positive because it gets you out of your rut.”

Still, after all of these years teaching and coaching, something had to give, and Bart recently decided to retire from coaching football so he can spend more time with his wife and four kids. Wrapping up his final season was bittersweet, but Bart is excited for what the future holds.

“Our days are numbered,” he says. “I want to appreciate every second that I have. It’s a gift, for sure.”

Karla Quinones, Teacher, Bill Reed Middle School

Life for Karla Quinones is nothing like she ever imagined it would be. Instead, it’s so much better.

Though she once dreamed of performing in the spotlight every night, she has found that being a theater teacher, mom and wife is exactly where she was meant to be.

Looking back on her childhood, Karla remembers spending countless hours dancing, singing and performing, and she always knew she would devote her life to the arts. She just didn’t know it would be as a drama teacher for an arts-focused middle school.

“I wanted to do Broadway, movies, TV … but people scared me about it. They told me to be realistic,” Karla says. While studying theater and communications in college, she began to look at other options. Her mother, a science teacher, encouraged her to explore the idea of being a teacher. Though initially reluctant, Karla soon found she had another passion: Sharing her joy of performing with young people.

After graduation, Karla began to dream of running a drama program of her own. She spent several years teaching English and theater, and directing and co-directing high school shows at Mountain View (where one of the productions she led was chosen to perform on the main stage at the annual ThesCon event in Denver) and then Karla, whose students call her ‘Q’, found her perfect fit at Bill Reed Middle School running the theater program.

“I can proudly say I have made theater a viable career for my life, and I am living my dream,” says Karla, who, in addition to teaching drama and acting full-time at Bill Reed, the designated Loveland Integrated School of the Arts (LISA) middle school in Thompson School District, also acts in local stage productions herself.

But running a thriving drama program at the only TSD middle school that has a full auditorium (where Karla’s students put on a musical production in addition to a straight play each year) is about more than just teaching her students to act, sing, and run a show from behind the scenes.

“Kids in middle school are so worried about where they belong. Here, they can just BE,” she explains. “The arts matter. We have kids who that’s their passion. They’re more sensitive and think outside the box.”

Using minimalist sets and accepting every student who wants to participate into the productions, Karla has led her students through shows such as James and the Giant Peach, which involved Bill Reed’s visual arts students creating shadow puppets to represent some of the unusual characters, to Frozen, which ended up having to be a virtual show due to the pandemic. Through it all, Karla said her students rose to every occasion. “Kids are so resilient. We don’t realize how strong they are. Most of the time, they are stronger than us.”

For Karla, giving her students a space where they feel safe is more personal than just a passion for teaching. Karla was born in Puerto Rico, and moved to the United States when she was five, just in time to start elementary school. She didn’t speak any English, and she recalls crying every day as she struggled to acclimate to her new world. She also remembers her mother sitting outside the school every day, just so Karla could see her from the window of her classroom.

“It was very scary, but I’m grateful, because I learned English in a year,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important for kids to belong, and what a difference it makes for someone to make you feel accepted – just one person.”

Those experiences shaped Karla’s philosophies on the importance of using the arts to create a safe haven for students and a place where they feel like they fit in. “What I do is not really teaching them theater. It’s teaching them to have empathy, to be kind and co-exist with others. That’s what I teach,” she explains. “I have kids who don’t feel like they belong anywhere else but here. That’s why I love what I do.”

Delaney McNally, Senior, Loveland High School

Loveland High senior Delaney McNally has always liked to stay busy. Her list of activities and interests is mind-boggling, and even during the Coronavirus pandemic, she has managed to fill her time – whether it’s playing with her new puppy Ogma and her five-year-old boxer Quinn, finding creative ways to run the purpose project she started in 2014, or preparing for college and the next phase of her life.

“I like learning new and different things,” Delaney explains, going through her extensive list of hobbies, which includes knitting, baking, biking and rock climbing — and those are just the things she does in her free time.

Delaney is also a captain on the varsity swim team, LHS Student Council treasurer, a volunteer for KidsPak, and a member of National Honor Society. She plans to go to the University of Colorado-Boulder after she graduates in May, and is excited about their biomedical engineering program.

Delaney’s dad is a physician’s assistant in an emergency room, and her mom, who was just elected to the Board of County Commissioners for Larimer County, has a degree in kinesiology. “I think I get my drive to serve from my mom and my science exposure from my dad,” Delaney says. Originally, Delaney wanted to be a doctor, but eventually she realized what she actually wanted to do was be in a lab helping doctors do their jobs. She describes biomedical engineering as “engineering concepts within the human body.”

Delaney thinks it is her love of math that makes her apply facts and figures to her many interests. “I was raised on doing my research. If you’re going to say something, you need to have the facts to back it up,” she says.

Another of Delaney’s passions is Generation Connect, the purpose project she created when she was in middle school and now runs with a team, partnering with organizations at Colorado State University and in the Larimer County community. Delaney had the idea for the group after her grandfather spent months in the hospital after a surgery. As the family gathered to see him when he was able to return home, he admonished everyone for their disconnect, and told them to put down their phones and talk to him. “After he said that, I looked around the room and realized he was right: Every one of us was on our phones.”

As a result, Delaney created Generation Connect to encourage people to put down technology and connect with the people around them. The organization hosts events for people from different generations and backgrounds to get together and talk to each other. Since the pandemic began last spring, Generation Connect has hosted virtual events, maintaining the goal of providing people with opportunities to connect. “Our team creates such a safe place to talk,” she says.

With all of her many responsibilities, Delaney says she has had to learn how to balance everything, a lesson that has not always come easy. “I know my limits now and how much I can take,” she says. “I am busy, but I’ve learned if I can’t handle something, I ask for help or say no.”

She also says she and her senior classmates can’t wait for normalcy to return to their lives once the pandemic is over. “I miss the little things – seeing a favorite teacher every day, just being with people,” she says but adds that she thinks there may still be good things to come from this. “I think people are going to not take these things for granted anymore after this.”

SARAH KING, McKINNEY-VENTO HOMELESS LIAISON

Sarah King remembers seeing people experiencing homelessness on the streets of Salt Lake City where she grew up and recalls thinking it didn’t seem fair.

Years later, while obtaining her master’s degree in social work, leading wilderness therapy with at-risk youth, interning with the non-profit Fort Collins Community Action Network, and working as a social-emotional learning specialist at Monroe, Lincoln, and Edmondson elementary schools, the injustice of homelessness stuck with her.

“Metaphorically, we’re always looking down at them” Sarah says. “Housing is a human right, and should be treated as such.”

As the McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaison for Thompson School District, Sarah’s job is to help students who are experiencing homelessness overcome the obstacles that might be hindering their educational success. But as Sarah explains, being “homeless” does not necessarily mean a family doesn’t have any shelter at all. In addition to families living outdoors, in cars, or in temporary shelters such as tents or campers, a student is also protected by McKinney-Vento if they live in other temporary situations, such as a hotel or motel, if they live with another family, or if they are an unaccompanied youth living without a legal guardian or parent. Sarah said that in schools, homelessness is defined as any student lacking a fixed and/or adequate place to live.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is federal legislation signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. It is considered to be the first significant law to address the plight of the homeless in the United States, and over the years it has been amended several times, perhaps most notably to protect children in our schools experiencing homelessness. That’s where people like Sarah come in.

“My job is to make sure that kid gets the same rights as all of the other kids,” Sarah says, explaining that she works to assist students with unstable living situations with things like waiving educational fees, providing transportation to and from school, and helping to ensure the continuity of their education. In TSD, we currently have almost 700 students from 400 families who are identified as McKinney-Vento.

Sarah explains how that lack of a permanent residence affects a student’s schooling and ability to learn. “Any kid lacking a fixed home also lacks stability,” Sarah says, explaining that as these students move around from place to place, their ability to get a consistent, quality education, as well as to make close friends and benefit from relationships with their teachers is impacted.

If you ask Sarah about the things she enjoys doing, she will tell you she has many interests: hiking, camping, skiing, live music, hanging out with her cat Albus, and listening to true crime podcasts. She also loves spicy food and maps. But when it comes to her career, her passion is focused on helping, and she especially loves tangible projects such as the non-freezing water fountain she helped get installed in Old Town in Fort Collins – something Sarah explained makes it so people without homes can have water year-round.

“There is so much criminalization and trauma involved in homelessness. Sometimes in America, we’re not the most preventative, and prevention starts with helping these kids,” Sarah says. “Our job is to help make sure we fill basic needs first. Federally, it is our job, but also, we see these kids more than anyone does. How could this NOT be our job? If education is our number one priority, how can this not be a part of it?”   

KENDRA LARSON, FIFTH GRADE TEACHER, COYOTE RIDGE ELEMENTARY

Sitting in her classroom at Coyote Ridge Elementary School, Kendra Larson carefully dissects an owl pellet for her awestruck fifth grade class to observe. Explaining each step, Kendra uses tweezers to hold tiny bones in front of the camera so her students watching at home on their computer screens can see the remnants of the owl’s meal. Her students are equal parts fascinated and disgusted, and express their appreciation as fifth-graders do, with exclamations of “gross!” and “cool!”. 

This is Kendra’s 15th year teaching, and her seventh year teaching at Coyote Ridge. Watching her captivate her students with this virtual science lesson, it is clear how passionate she is about educating young people. But for someone who grew up in a tiny town in North Dakota and says she loves “all the cliché Colorado things” – camping, being outside, and lake activities – a huge part of Kendra’s heart lies over 13,000 miles away, in Uganda, a place she has spent much of two of her last four summer breaks learning about a completely different culture and way of life. She works with children there too, but in Uganda, the students learn on dirt floors in tiny schools without windows in the frames. 

Kendra first went to Uganda in 2017, after meeting a woman from Africa who makes jewelry out of discarded paper and sells it to raise money for schools. Kendra spent almost a month in Uganda on her first trip, traveling with strangers she met through an organization in Johnstown. She says she cried herself to sleep the first night she was there, asking herself what in the world she had been thinking traveling halfway across the globe with people she barely knew – to help people she didn’t know at all. 

“The next day, we went to the school, and it clicked: This is why I’m here. They’ve got nothing, and they want to give you everything.” 

By the end of her first trip, Kendra was heartbroken to leave all of the amazing people she had met, but she also couldn’t wait to find ways to help them. “You won’t leave being the same person. You’ll want to make things better,” she explains. Kendra came back to the United States and sponsored two Ugandan children, providing them with money for food, mattresses, mosquito nets, and school uniforms and shoes. She also found sponsors for over 20 other students, many of whom are aided by teachers at Coyote Ridge. 

Coyote Ridge Principal Deon Davis says Kendra has “a huge heart for our kids, but also for our community and our world. What she does is so admirable. She has embraced IB, and dug into its culture of service, action, and international mindedness.” 

And those are the lessons Kendra is so committed to passing on to young people in the United States, not just in her classroom but across the community. She speaks to students in every grade level at Coyote Ridge, telling them about other cultures and encouraging them to want to make a difference in the world. 

“There are so many different worlds out there, but we are all human,” Larson says. “I want to open their eyes to how much we have and (teach them to) be grateful for it.”