Meet Danielle Feeney: shaping the future at High Plains School

Published: September 7, 2018

Danielle is to the far right, pictured with School Board members

Danielle and her husband moved to Loveland from New Jersey in 2004. They loved the West with its open space, awe-inspiring landscape and extensive opportunities for outdoor recreation. After realizing nothing was keeping them in New Jersey, they looked at a map of Colorado and found Loveland. They did some research and discovered that not only did it check all of their boxes for their personal lives, but it also checked all of the boxes professionally.

Loveland is surrounded by several different school districts giving Danielle lots of job opportunities for her career in education. She ended up working as the assistant principal, and then the elementary principal at a school in Longmont. And while she really enjoyed the school and her position, and didn’t mind the commute, she started to feel that she was spending all of her time in Longmont and wasn’t connecting to her community in Centerra. Then, she heard about a new school opening in Thompson School District: High Plains School.

She was immediately intrigued by the plans for the school as well as its unique curriculum. The school wasn’t open yet but they were looking for a principal to help build the school from the ground up. Danielle knew it was the perfect opportunity for her to get involved in her own community and loved the challenge of opening a new school with a different type of learning environment than she was used to. She was hired in October 2015, almost a year before the school opened and immediately went to work.

For a full year, Danielle learned everything she could about STEAM schools. She read everything she could find online, went to conferences and toured over 20 schools throughout Colorado. She worked extensively with community members, district personnel and developers to ensure the school embodied what they wanted to see in their community. She strategically hired teachers and staff and worked with the district to develop the school’s programming. She spent a year dreaming of everything High Plains School could be, and now that it’s open she has loved seeing her vision come to life.

High Plains School features a unique STEAM curriculum, which incorporates a range of concepts including science, technology, engineering, art and math to challenge students to apply their knowledge to real-life situations. Before High Plains School opened, the district had already decided it should be a STEAM school, but Danielle’s task was to determine what teachers needed to do in order for the students to see the integration of all areas of the STEAM curriculum. She found problem-based learning and has turned this type of teaching and learning into a cornerstone of the school.

Danielle’s favorite part of problem-based learning (PBL) is the opportunity for the students and the school to interact extensively with community members. Through the PBL program, students start with an actual problem their community is facing and then they are free to design the solution. The middle school students recently worked on a PBL looking at the impact of population growth, and specifically for their community how a growing population impacts traffic patterns around the school. In order to effectively solve this PBL, Danielle needed local civil engineers, the police department, Larimer County Road and more to come into the school and share their expertise so the students could build their knowledge base and develop a solution. After the students complete a PBL they then go back out into the community and present their proposed solution to a panel of community members. Danielle loves these two-way conversations between the students and the community and hopes to continue developing those relationships.

One of the best parts of living in Centerra for Danielle is the ability to connect so easily with nature. It’s also one of the best parts of High Plains School. Not only does the school’s design have a focus on bringing the outdoors inside with expansive windows and lots of natural light, but it also provides ample opportunity for the students to get involved in sustainability. At the school, they have two gardens where students can learn about where food comes from. They even harvest food from the gardens that the students can eat, and leftovers are donated to the Larimer Food Bank. High Plains School also has geothermal heating and cooling with a connected data dashboard the students can use to learn about electricity and water usage. But Danielle’s favorite feature is the school’s connection to High Plains Environmental Center.

She loves that there’s a walking trail between the school and the environmental center and it was so thoughtfully planned that the students only have to cross one road to get there. Plus, the entire walking path is a learning environment filled with wetlands, animals and native plant life. The students make frequent trips to the environmental center to learn about the environment and how they can be good citizens of the earth. Danielle loves that there are opportunities like this in Centerra and she wants to see the school continue to get involved in the community so students can have authentic experiences and see how they can have a direct impact where they live.

Danielle had never worked in a school like High Plains, but it has been an exciting experience for her. We live in a world where anyone can Google anything they want to know. Danielle has found that knowing things isn’t what’s most important anymore, it’s about being able to take that information and make a difference. She loves watching the students learn something, apply it, and then make something new through a program she has worked so hard to build. She is incredibly thankful to be part of such an extraordinary school and help her students make an impact in their community. She’s excited about the things happening at the school and in the community and can’t wait for what comes next.