SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — Only a half-hour into its first open house, The Space — a new student-created open community space in downtown Springfield — perfectly illustrated the kind of interactive social vision that drove the students’ mission.
By the front windows looking onto Main Street, Springfield youth played board games together or sat at a computer. Sitting among a semi-circle of sofas and soft chairs, Kenya, a certified addiction recovery coach, conversed with Springfield High School juniors Natalia and Makaila Dorcely — two student creators of The Space — about the project.
“We wanted to create a safe place for teens downtown, where we can grow the relationships between youth and the adults in our community,” said Natalia Dorcely, 16. “We want this space to be open to teens and families, as a place to meet new people.”
The story of The Space, however, is far from over. It began last school year as a learning project in the Springfield School District, with a high school class called Community Action, and partnering educators in Riverside Middle School and the One-4-All program. And much like the circle represented in The Space’s official logo, there is no endpoint to this project.
Learning while doing
In project-based learning, students work collaboratively to bring a meaningful project to fruition, requiring the learners to creatively apply academic and real-world skills through every stage to the project’s completion.
With a goal to create a teen community center, the students spent much of last school year researching, delivering presentations and doing community outreach. The class visited other student-created teen spaces around the state; they conducted scores of student and community surveys to determine interests and wants; they presented their project proposal to legislators at the Vermont statehouse; met with local officials and community groups; conducted outreach to solicit peer involvement; fundraised; and networked with middle school programs to engage students who might potentially take over the project someday.
The students had to learn and apply numerous real-world skills, said Chris Lievense, Community Action teacher at Springfield High School. The communications component alone included learning to deliver presentations, communicating to one’s target audience and recording and editing videos, skills that are often difficult to teach in traditional classes, Lievense said.
Springfield junior Richie Ryan, 16, said that sheer curiosity drew him to join.
“I first wondered what the class was going to be about,” he said.
Ryan said at first he didn’t see the need to build relationships with the outside community. Over the course of the school year, however, he saw the benefit in collaborating with others to learn different points of view, and the challenge to consider other perspectives.
This project is just beginning
“It feels like we’re just starting,” Lievense said.
Where last year’s project was to create the physical center, next year’s — and imaginably for years to come — will address how students will use the space to achieve their broader community-purposed goals.
The questions facing next year’s cohorts will include how the students overseeing the space will govern themselves, and employ outreach to build a base of volunteers, support and connect with the outside community, Lievense said.
Acquiring student volunteers will be essential to the student vision, said Natalie. The class sees The Space being an ideal hub for Springfield residents to find high school students to perform needed work, such as mowing lawns or other projects, as part of required community service for graduation.
Perhaps more importantly, high school students will play an important role in the project’s other aim, to build mentoring relationships between teenagers and students in the middle and elementary schools.
“We want to help younger kids feel more comfortable around teenagers,” said Makaila Dorcely. “A lot of them don’t even talk to older kids.”
Natalie said this center could be an ideal space for building those relationships between adolescents and younger children, through scheduled activities like reading to children, sports, excursions to the recreation center or sponsored field trips.
“Right now at least one adult will be here [for supervision],” Natalie said.
Natalia and Makaila said that their group is working closely with Riverside Middle School teacher Becca Polk and One-4-All Director Tamara Stagner to cultivate future successors to run The Space once those students reach high school.
Polk teaches a class for middle-school students called Youth in Action, which engages students in real-world discussions about societal issues such as racial diversity.
Riverside student Ariana Dorcely, an 8th grader, said that she likes that the Youth in Action class talks about current issues like diversity and politics, and takes trips to Vermont events such as Diversity Day, that took place on May 3 in Brattleboro.