SWANTON — Better connections — specifically, creating them — is a theme in conversations across the county. Here in Swanton, it was a topic of public discussion just weeks ago. Swanton Enhancement Project volunteers pondered how to connect younger people with their community, how to teach them about volunteering, about municipal governance, and, how to convince them to stick around.

Alyssa Urban is working on a solution.

Urban is a social studies teacher at Missisquoi Valley Union (MVU). She is also one of six teachers statewide awarded a Rowland Foundation fellowship in 2018.

The Rowland Foundation gives Vermont secondary school educators “a unique professional development and leadership opportunity and the resources to positively affect student achievement and the culture and climate” of their schools. In Urban’s case, that means $75,000 to spearhead a program called “MVUnity.”

MVUnity is an initiative to connect the broader Swanton community with MVU, its students, teachers and staff, as well as the school’s resources. Concretely, that could mean evening classes and workshops at MVU for community members, opportunities like cooking or sewing classes, or community use of the school gym. For students, it might mean creating a resource directory listing accessible community members for students, like Korean War veterans willing to speak to a class, municipal leaders ready to involve students in governing their community, or just residents with yard leaves in need of raking.

Basically, it means turning MVU into a community center while immersing students in the broader community.

But it also means strengthening students’ role in shaping their school, whether through student leadership groups or just teaching students how to act on an idea.

Urban gave the example of students who want to start a wrestling team. MVU had wrestling teams in the past, but doesn’t currently. In that case, Urban said, the straightest procedure would probably be to contact the school’s athletic directors, identify former MVU wrestlers, involve them in the push for a new team, and then identify potential funding mechanisms for the team.

Routes to make ideas like that happen are available to anyone, but students might not know that. Many adults don’t know that, as municipal board members have lamented in Swanton again and again. A resident who wants or needs something in the town or village might not know to contact the town selectboard or village board of trustees, let alone the procedure those boards must take to make their idea happen.

It might sound like a workplace learning program, or even like any of the community-based learning to which MVU students in all grade levels are exposed. But Urban said MVUnity’s organizers hope for deeper immersion in the community, different from service projects or workplace training.

She gave the example of students actively and regularly working on research with the Swanton Historical Society. MVUnity may use tasks like that to break down the imagined wall between school and the adult world, not to prepare students for civic engagement but to raise them civically engaged.

Urban is also aiming for stronger community involvement in shaping the school. Community members are welcome to attend school board meetings, and to provide feedback, but Urban said she is hoping to more directly involve the public.

MVUnity is a two-year project, and it’s only just begun. The project is currently in the information-gathering phase, according to Urban’s personal timeline. Next she’ll be building a resource and communication network, driving to municipal offices and businesses, asking for input and distributing information about the project.

Urban and MVUnity’s project partners, including a steering committee of Urban’s MVU colleagues, high school principal Jay Hartman, Mary Hartman of the career center and fellow social studies teacher Jason Barney, will spend 2019 shaping exactly how the program will look and what it will entail. Then, according to Urban’s timeline, MVUnity heads will train teachers and students to run the MVUnity network.

MVUnity organizers plan forums soon to give community members and students opportunities to share ideas and possible solutions to municipal and school issues. Urban said that many Rowland fellows use a portion of their funding to visit other communities, but Urban has focused on people here. Most of her job so far, she said, has been listening.

After the forums come community action projects. MVU social studies students will research local history, interview residents, “help solve local issues or lend a hand.”

Information and updates about the project are available at mvunity.org. The site hosts a survey and regular weekly questions respondents can answer online or via text message. The site also hosts Urban’s blog, keeping readers posted on the project as it develops.

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Swanton steps toward Better Connections