Behold the ‘Sundogola,’ a new space to learn at TrekNorth

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The TrekNorth community came together to quickly build an outdoor classroom space ahead of the new school year. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- Meaningful circles are plentiful within the TrekNorth school community, according to school board member Lydia Pietruszewski. The school’s compass rose logo and TrekNorth’s mascot, the Sundog (a round concentrated patch of sunlight) -- are both circles.

Now there’s one more circle to celebrate -- a round pergola, standing over the school’s new outdoor classroom space.

A “Sundogola” -- as Pietruszewski has dubbed it.

A group of volunteers made up of TrekNorth staff and students, along with their families, recently installed an outdoor classroom near the school, complete with a large pergola and flower gardens.

TrekNorth students started fall classes online on Tuesday, and will begin following a hybrid model on Sept. 14.


The space will provide an area for outdoor instruction and for students to take breaks from wearing their masks, which are required indoors. The outdoor classroom space is Wi-Fi accessible, and will be available to all classes. Along with the permanent outdoor classroom structure, TrekNorth has also installed temporary outdoor classrooms under tents and carports behind the school.

“Kids can come outside and still be socially distanced, take mask breaks and just be in the sunshine,” TrekNorth Executive Director Erica Harmsen said.

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The new outdoor classroom space is shaded and wifi accessible. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

The calming area consists of a wood chip garden, picnic tables, stepping stones and stools made of natural wood, and of course, the pergola. Pietruszewski said her son originally inspired the circular design.

“It came full circle for me, I worked at TrekNorth from 2006 to 2012,” Pietruszewski said. “That experience helped me grow as a person and continues to help me grow. And then my son started sixth grade here in 2018. When I told him I was asked to take on this project, he found a picture of a round pergola.”

According to Pietruszewski, the pergola project came together quickly. “The willingness and generosity of community businesses and individuals really made this possible on a tight budget and schedule,” she said.

Kurt Davis Bobcat of Bemidji and Nature's Edge Garden Center donated time and materials, along with the help of the Pietruszewski family and many volunteers.


“We wanted it to feel warm, to exude a sense of togetherness, especially in these times of physical distancing,” Pietruszewski said.

The space will eventually have raised bed gardens for students to gain the benefits of gardening, staff added, mentioning that students will also have opportunities to beautify the space in other ways, such as installing suncatchers or planters.

“There is a movement toward outdoor classrooms, natural learning and natural playgrounds throughout the world. When we want to show students, their families and the staff that holds it all together that they are valued, we need to give them spaces that feel special,” Pietruszewski said. “Science shows us that nature is healing, time spent in natural environments boosts mental health, and is a grounding force for our busy lives.”

Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Pioneer covering education, Indigenous-centric stories and features.
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