The Health and Future of Our Community

Last Updated: October 29, 2012

This article appeared in the October 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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In Jackman, Maine high school students staff a tech support program that provides the only computer repair and setup services within 70 miles. Middle schoolers and elementary students operate a greenhouse and community garden with a goal of improving nutritional options for local residents. "Both of these projects are serving a pocket of need," explains Denise Plante, principal of Forest Hills Consolidated School (K–12) in Jackman.

The Jackman students' efforts are examples of rural young people taking action to improve the economic prospects of their communities. The projects were initiated as part of the Rural Trust's Youth-Led Poverty Reduction program that supports schools and communities in connecting students' academic work to community needs.

The phrase "Youth-Led Poverty Reduction" was coined by Rural Trust President Doris Terry Williams and reflects the commitment of the Trust to place-based approaches that improve both the quality of education and the quality of life in the local community. It also recognizes  that many rural communities are dealing with poverty. In some communities it is long-term poverty entrenched by historical circumstance; in some other communities, it is increasing poverty levels that result from shifts in rural economies, public policy, and global trends.

Youth-Led Poverty Reduction, like place-based education in general, is an efficient and effective strategy for improvig student achievement and local communities simultaneously," says Williams. "Students do sustained work that is aligned with both community needs and core standards. This is especially important in high-poverty communities where student work fills service voids, increases social capital, and attracts and retains 'wealth' in their local place."

J-Tech: Student-led technology support

The J-Tech program began three years ago at Forest Hills Consolidated School. The program provides computer repair and setup services to residents and businesses in Jackman and surrounding communities. It also refurbishes donated computers and provides them free of charge to local residents. Nineteen (a full 20%) of the school's 192 students participate.

Derek Hussey is technology coordinator for the SAD 12 school district (along with two other rural districts) and advisor for J-Tech. "The students repair laptops, desktops, iPad, iPods, and smart phones," he explains.

Students are responsible for all aspects of the business. "They do it all, end-to-end," says Hussey, "invoicing, receipting, budgeting, policy development." (You can see a copy of the invoice form that students use to track their work here.)

Bailey Brown, a Forest Hills senior, is J-Tech's manager. "I got involved as a freshman," she explains. "I've always been interested in computers."

As Manager, Brown is responsible for making sure the program is running smoothly, selecting the assistant manager, and organizing regular meetings of the staff in which students develop policy and vote on important issues. Brown is also responsible for the program's budget and does most repairs on iPods.

The program is open three days a week for two hours and through the summer. Residents can drop off their technology during business hours. J-Tech charges a $10 fee for all services plus the cost of parts. Brown says that it is much less expensive for residents that taking their computers to a manufacturer's retail outlet. "And we're right here in town," she adds.

The fees go into the J-Tech account to cover business expenses. One of those expenses — in the J-Tech business model — is the cost of repairing donated computers. "Sometimes people give us their old computers when they get a new one," explains Hussey. "Agencies have also donated computers. We received 20 computers from the U.S. Customs."

Students refurbish and update the computers, and community residents can sign up to receive one of them. 

Students also decide how to spend some of their profits. "Last year they voted to buy office chairs and they have celebrated their successes with a party," says Hussey.

J-Tech also incurs another important business expense: student stipends. Students earn a $4 stipend for each work session. (Manager and Assistant Manager earn $6 and $5, respectively.) The "pay" is deposited into a college account managed by the Jackman Region Community Association (JRCA), one of J-Tech's community partners. "You can use it for any college expense or if you are going into the military," explains Brown.

Students can also earn a laptop computer. Again, Brown: "The four core J-Tech members who worked through the summer all received a laptop. If we want to keep it, we have to work two sessions each week all year."

In addition to JRCA, J-Tech's community partners include the Jackman Region Leadership Team, the Jackman Chamber of Commerce, the towns of Jackman and Moose River and several businesses including stores, a lumber company, and the local motel.

J-Tech is providing a service that helps local residents get and stay connected digitally. It is making enough money to be self-sufficient and to help seed other place-based learning projects. In addition, students are learning valuable technology skills along with essential business skills that can translate into other entrepreneurial efforts.

"We hope one of our graduates will put J-Tech out of business," laughs Plante. "Same with some of our other efforts. We want the school to be supporting the overall health and future of our community."

And if a Forest Hills alumnus sets up a business that ends the local need for J-Tech? It won't mean that students won't have other opportunities to learn valuable entrepreneurial skills.

Green Team September 2012

The Moose River Valley Collaborative devoted the September 5th issue of its newsletter to the Green Team.

Green Team

The Green Team started as part of the school's Learn 2 Live After School and Summer program. "We wanted to bring gardening into the curriculum," explains Plante. "At the same time members of the school board and high school science students were investigating ways the school could reduce our fossil fuel consumption and energy use."

Eventually the two groups merged and the Green Team was formed. "The Green Team is made of many people," says Learn 2 Live Coordinator Heather Sylvester. "There are representatives of the water district, Extension Office, and Food Corps, along with local gardeners, health professionals, and other community residents."

The Green Team decided to create a school-community partnership to focus on food production. "The weather is really cold in our community, and we are also isolated, so we don't have great year round access to fruits and vegetables at a reasonable cost," says Plante.

Last year, with a small grant from the Maine Community Foundation and the Rural Trust, students in the school's shop class built a greenhouse and a series of raised and ground level planting beds. And the program took off.

With the leadership of community volunteers and students through the summer,  the greenhouse produced enough food to serve in the school cafeteria. "We've had tomatoes, herbs, cucumbers, pumpkins, peppers, potatoes, squash, and zucchini," says Sylvester.

Students in 4th through 8th grades, in partnership with community volunteers, do much of the management of the greenhouse and care and harvesting of the plants. Students in 3rd grade have started a sensory garden and a clear-bottle root garden in their classroom. The school is currently exploring ways to grow produce year round in the greenhouse without increasing energy consumption.

The success of the Green Team is overlapping with other community interests. For example, the school has replaced its oil burners with wood pellet burners and reduced both its energy consumption and expense considerably. There is a growing compatibility between the goals of the school and community around health issues.

"Parents and local health professionals were pushing us to look at our wellness program, in part because of the prevalence of diabetes and other health issues," says Plante. "As part of that effort we're increasing fruits and vegetables in the school's food services. And our head cook is implementing new federal guidelines for reducing sugar, sodium, and saturated fats. We also want to increase activity levels and replace food rewards with activity rewards."

As with J-Tech, the Green Team's goals extend beyond the school. "We want to grow more farmers in the community," says Plante. "Farmers are aging out, so we want to teach our kids about how easy and wonderful it is to grow your own food."

And what else is the school doing? "We've applied for a Farm to School federal grant," says Plante. "There are some local people who want to get started in farming. If the school can buy from them it helps build a stronger base for their fledgling efforts. If they succeed, the whole community gets better access to healthier food."

The health and future of the community. Indeed.

The Moose River Valley Collaborative devoted the September 5th issue of its newsletter to the Green Team. You can access the newsletter and see great photos of the Team's progress here.

Read more from the October 2012 Rural Policy Matters.