Leaving a legacy: Mt. Vernon students pitch services projects developed in new high school class

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FORTVILLE — As he headed back to his seat, Justin Thorpe placed a hand to his chest and let out a deep sigh of relief.

Moments prior, the Mt. Vernon High School student had pitched to a group of administrators and school board members his idea to bring representatives from a California-based nonprofit to Hancock County to speak with teachers about creative writing. Those teachers could then pass along the information to their students, hopefully inspiring kids to put pen to paper more regularly as a way to express themselves.

Before his presentations, Thorpe’s nerves were clear to any onlooker. He paced back and forth along the back of the meeting room, reading over his pitch, his notes, his paperwork, his lips moving noiselessly.

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But the few moments of fear and anxiety that come with public speaking will be worth it in the end, Thorpe’s teachers say.

The teen is among the first class of Mt. Vernon students to enroll in a new immersive learning program dedicated to helping students create and implement service projects within their school and community.

Mirrored after a class already available to students at New Palestine High School, Mt. Vernon’s new class encourages students to look for a need and then come up with a plan to fill it, said teacher Joe Anderson.

The juniors and seniors who enrolled got to work on the first day of school, brainstorming ways to make a difference in the community. In the three weeks that have followed, they’ve contacted people and organizations that might be in need of assistance, come with plans to aid those groups and applied for grants hoping to secure the funding they’ll need to bring their ideas to fruition.

Friday, each group presented their ideas to a panel of school board members, administrators and other district leaders. Those adults grilled them with questions about their proposals, shining a light on the part of their project plans that might be underdeveloped and helping them explore other ideas.

Thorpe’s idea was to bring a representative from the nonprofit 826 — which works to inspire young writers through workshop centers in eight cities across the country — to Mt. Vernon to offer a professional development class on creative writing to teachers.

Some of the other projects presented included adding plastic-specific recycling bins to the high school campus; planting bee-friendly flowers around the football field to increase local bee populations; and hosting a variety of fundraisers to benefit groups like the local Humane Society and the Make a Wish Foundation.

The goal is to have the projects implemented or completed by December, the end of the semester.

Students say some of the most challenging aspects of developing their projects are coming up with an initial idea and making sure that idea was realistic.

Neani Powe and her groupmates had to go back to the drawing board a week before Friday’s pitch presentation because their proposal to give lunches and care packages to residents at Wheeler Mission in Indianapolis was rejected by the homeless shelter. The mission already offered the services the teens hoped to provide, they were told.

So with only a few days to go, Powe and her friends came up with a plan to partner with local preschool teachers to teach 3- and 4-year-olds about the life cycles of plants. High school students would come into the preschool and plant flowers with the children, showing them that even the smallest good deeds can make the world a better, more beautiful place.

It was a lot of pressure to come up with a new project on short notice, Powe said; but she was proud of the idea they’d crafted and is eager to see the plans they’ve put on paper come to life.

As the students plan, they learn about project management, communication, marketing and critical thinking, Anderson said. When they encounter road blocks, like Powe and her friends did, it forces them to reconsider their campaigns or even start over entirely to come up with a new, better plan. But by the end, they’ll know they’ve made a difference.

That idea of creating a legacy was what drew students Nate Davis and Megan Stricker to the immersive learning class.

Their project involved partnering with a local nursing home to get high school students involved with the activities offered to residents. Students would get to know seniors over a series of visits; and in the end they’d be able to give each resident a personalized gift basket.

It’s the kind of project that other, younger students can get involved in, ensuring their efforts live on at Mt. Vernon even after they graduate, Davis and Stricker said.