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Students meet with ND governor

By Staff | May 3, 2019

Submitted photo RHS community building students meet with North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. Front Row (left to right): Keith Vetsch, Riley Zachmeier, Devan Michels, Emma Mahle Back Row: Instructor Kevin Leier, Jaden Hamilton, Eian Van Genderen, Governor Burgum, Wyatt Schmaltz, Corey Mattern, Ty Gross.

A concept taught in a new elective class at Rugby High School is catching on not only among students, but their community and North Dakota’s Capitol.

RHS social studies teacher Kevin Leier said his students began involving themselves with their community two years ago.

“We did a project in Rugby that highlighted our downtown, and that caught the attention of Governor Burgum and his Main Street Development team,” Leier told the Tribune. The project would later earn the students a “Future Leaders Empowerment Award” for 2018 from North Dakota’s Main Street Initiative.

“So, based off that,” Leier continued, “I came back to our administration, and I told them, we got really great engagement with the students, and they were really interested in this, and they wanted to put forth a lot more effort than what you typically get in a class, what do you think about trying to do an actual class teaching community building, or community development?”

Leier said the administration gave him the go-ahead to form the community building class, but no curriculum for the subject existed, so he would have to develop it himself.

“I said, ‘that doesn’t matter; we’ll just build it as we go,'” Leier recounted. “I based it off two different concepts. There’s the Main Street Initiative in North Dakota, which is modeled off Doug Burgum’s entrepreneurial efforts in Fargo, with the (downtown revitalization company) Kilbourne Group.”

Leier said the second concept came from strongtowns.org, a non-profit company in Minnesota.

“So, we tried to take a lot of the stuff that Strong Towns does,” Leier explained, “and we took a lot of stuff from the Main Street Initiative, and I put it together in a curriculum that would allow students to get a broad understanding of what it takes to design, implement and build a community, and from that perspective, what are some cool things that we could do for Rugby, that are not major, huge things that would cause friction of change, but what are things that would benefit our community for everybody?”

The concept of changing communities bit by bit, called incrementalism, serves as a central theme in Leier’s curriculum.

“The whole class is built on four things,” Leier explained. “It’s built on the Main Street Initiative; it’s based on the concept of incrementalism; and how incremental change can be a positive change mechanism for our community; build up community activation and community beautification.”

Leier’s class, which he said is “ninety percent project-based,” has students actively involved in their community.

The community building class consists of a small group of boys, and one girl. Emma Mahle said, “It’s different. I’m used to a good mix between boys and girls in each class.”

However, she added, “For the most part, everyone’s included in this class. Everyone gets to say their opinion and put out their own ideas.”

Class projects include volunteering as guides for last fall’s “Tour the Potential” event organized by the Rugby Job Development Authority, and corresponding with search engine Google to improve the accuracy of the Google Maps application.

The Google project, called “Putting Rugby on the Map,” involved reporting GPS coordinates for streets and other locations in Rugby to improve the accuracy of driving directions and other map features.

Students also participated in a community forum held last fall by the city of Rugby, where they caught the attention of two representatives from the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

Leier recalled, “They said, ‘We need to get you down to the capitol, and let’s do it sometime toward the end of session, so that hopefully, we can get Burgum to carve out a little time to meet you guys.'”

The students met with Burgum in April, as the 2019 state legislative session wound to a close.

Leier said his class also met with officials from the City of Bismarck to share their ideas and discuss community building.

Community building student Eian Van Genderen described meeting Burgum with his class. “He’s a really powerful person,” he said of the governor. As soon as he walks into the room and you saw him, you just knew you were in the presence of someone with a lot of power.”

“When we were talking to him, you could just tell he is very intelligent, and knew what was going on,” said classmate Ty Gross.

Gross said of the meeting, “We kind of put together a book of projects that we had done over the year, and we kind of, we basically presented that to him, and showed him, and he recognized us for all the projects collectively.”

The class said their conversation with the governor centered on the Main Street Initiative.

“I remember (Burgum) telling us why the Main Street Initiative is so important, and the statistics behind it, plus the money side, like how it’s economically better for you to open a business in a building that’s already there, downtown,” said student Riley Zachmeier.

The students said they have a project in the works for Rugby’s Main Avenue later this month.

“Right now, we’re working on the bean bag tournament, in between Ashley Berg’s building and City Hall,” Gross noted.

The students said the event, slated for the evening of May 21, would involve 64 teams for what they called a game of “standard ‘corn hole.'” Gross said the class will ask community members to provide “corn hole,” or bean bag toss boards.

“We’re trying to keep it very organized so we know what’s going on. We’re going to have people sign up with us, and we’re going to put together a bracket, and we’re going to project it up on the side of the building, and everyone should start at relatively the same time, ” Gross said, “and making sure everything stays in order.”

Student Devan Michels said the project resulted from a brainstorming session to find ways to build community activation, “Because we wanted to finish off our class on a big project, so we tossed around some ideas, either to raise some money and put it into beautification for downtown, so, at first we were going to charge people, but then we just decided to make it a free event.”

The class said they would encourage downtown businesses to stay open later the night of the event to give participants the opportunity to shop in Rugby.

“If it catches on, we’re going to try and do something like that in the future,” Gross said.

A sign-up form for the tournament may be found on the Rugby Public Schools Facebook page.

“The cool thing about what we’ve been able to do with this class, and what they’ve seen very clearly is in small communities, we need more energy driven into what can we do, because we don’t want to see this community die,” Leier noted.

“These guys will tell you I’m about as pro-Rugby as they come. I love this community, and I think when you have people who are excited about what can happen, other people feed off that,” he added.

Leier turned to his class and asked, “You guys tell me do you think Rugby has potential?”

The class answered without hesitation, almost in unison: “Yes, definitely, absolutely!”

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