Ronan students experience real-world learning in community

For the past four years, the senior class at Ronan High School has worked to leave a positive impression on its community.

From building a house and erecting a huge sign on the town’s main street to welcome visitors to the beautification of the downtown area with plants, trees and a mural, the senior project has been a labor of love for the more than 200 students who have participated since 2001.

Associated Press

But more than the completed projects, which are meant to leave an indelible mark for the community to remember, the program teaches out-of-the-classroom skills such as creativity, responsibility and leadership.

New this year is a senior elective class that broadens even the practical aspects of learning.

"Not only do we do just the senior project, but we build on a lot of leadership skills," said Bonnie Eva, the teacher of the 14-student session, which meets two to three times a week.

"We work on public speaking, writing and communication skills," she said. "We even look at their resumes and applications for college. We try to build that community leadership thing into the class."

The senior project, the focus of which is determined by the entire class, initially began as part of the school’s move toward "expeditionary learning."

The concept places students in real-world situations where they encounter adults outside of their faculty or family.

"Part of expeditionary learning is to really involve kids in more quality learning than just quantity," Eva said.

"One large piece is service, not only for your school but your community."

"We wanted to take the kids out of the classroom and get them into a real situation with real (community) mentors, which is part of the expeditionary learning concept," said Maer Rubley, a fifth-year teacher at Ronan who also works on the project.

She said the involvement of community mentors and "authentic audiences" increases the quality of the students’ work.

"It changes their level of commitment," Rubley said.

There’s been no shortage of volunteers who have provided much-needed technical and general expertise and financial resources to push the projects to fruition.

"That’s the great part about this," Eva said. "We get a lot of the community members that volunteer their time, but not just to do the project themselves, but to teach the kids and then they do everything."

After three years of working around town, this year the senior class decided it was time to focus on improving amenities on their own campus.

"The students wanted to make the whole area look presentable and welcoming," Eva said. "We have new facilities but we don’t have any landscaping that goes with it," she said.

A large, treated wooden sign will be placed near the entrance of the campus to identify the high school, a native species garden will be placed on the southwestern corner of the school near where a set of picnic tables will be placed, and an area will be designed for holding outdoor classes and possibly theatrical presentations.

Benches and trees also will be added next to the tennis courts near the front entrance.

"The kids had so many great ideas about what they wanted to do around the school, but we had to narrow it down," Eva said.

The program is self-sustaining and exists with the help of donations, fund-raising events and grants, all things the seniors help with.

"A real sense of practicality," Rubley said. "That’s really the whole goal is to have a real-life experience with community mentors before they graduate."

Shane Edington and Jared Walchuk, two seniors who have helped on previous class projects, said they’ve looked with anticipation at having their own project, something they can take real pride in.

"You get to work with other people. You have to do it. (The) teachers don’t," Walchuk said. "It reflects on how the community thinks of you."

The boys said there’s plenty of competition to outdo your predecessors.

"Of course," Edington said, "the bigger the better."

Most interesting, said the teachers, is the surfacing of leaders outside of the classroom environment.

"You already have some natural leaders in the classroom, but usually what the senior project does is bring out those hidden leaders that you haven’t seen before," Eva said. "It’s kind of that practicality thing. A lot of those students haven’t been able to shine in school with academics as (much as) they could when they’re out working with their hands and giving you a real product."

Maer talks fondly about a day – with students knee-deep in mud in the middle of foundation work with the house project four years ago – when she said to herself, "This is what teaching is all about."

"It was wonderful. It’s watching them do something totally voluntary and they’re giving back and it’s like they’re taking everything that they’ve been taught for their whole life and they combine it and put it into action. It’s very rewarding and satisfying to be a part of it. It’s actually an honor to be a part of it."

Eva agrees that’s what makes everything worthwhile.

"It’s magnificent. You finally get some of the students who have been hidden away or so reserved in the classroom (that) finally step forward," she said.

"Just to see the smile on their face and for them to reflect back to you their sense of accomplishment, it’s just wonderful. It makes teaching definitely worthwhile to see that growth. That why you get into it in the first place: To make a difference."

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