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Town, Gown, & Service Learning

by Hannah Dale '10

The words town and gown are often considered in opposition. Instead, here are four excellent examples of projects that integrate the College's values of citizenship and academic achievement with opportunities for service in the city of Keene, creating a dynamic and positive interaction between campus and town.

"We are at a very good point now. Everyone's involved. We have city planners teaching classes at the College, and students interning with the city."
– Keene Mayor Dale Pregent

Throughout their four years attending Keene State College, students have the opportunity to experience many different aspects of education and extracurricular activities. One of the most important initiatives on campus, called service learning, links hands-on learning with community needs, providing Cheshire County with valuable services.

In the last year alone, students have spent hundreds of classroom hours, as well as weekends and vacations, documenting biological diversity in the city's parks, touring jails to understand the psychological needs of inmates about to be released, analyzing a downtown historic district, and compiling fresh data for valuable reports to city officials.

Here are just a few of the town/gown projects tackled recently by students.

Historic Preservation in Downtown Keene

Professor Chris Cusack, Katie Bills, Neil O'Brien, and Scarlet Silver photo by Chris Justice '97 Professor Chris Cusack (far right) led geography students Katie Bills, Neil O'Brien, and Scarlet Silver in their feasibility study for establishing a historic district along South Main Street in Keene.

Students: geography students in their junior and senior years

Service: Students worked with Professor Christopher Cusack to gather data, survey the public, and determine the feasibility and implications of establishing a historic district in downtown Keene, with emphasis on South Main Street, where the town's first settlement occurred. Students met with members of the Heritage Commission, Historic District Commission, Keene Planning Board, and other interested parties, and concluded there was strong public support for a South Main Street Historic District. The data and maps collected and compiled were shared with city officials to aid in obtaining grants to continue preservation efforts. Students called their project Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Preserve.

Communicorps: Second Chance for Success

Luke Laplume, Ryan Murphy, Joe Fisher, and Michael Currier phot by Lynn Roman '05 Architecture students Luke Laplume, Ryan Murphy, Joe Fisher, and Michael Currier designed an apartment complex to help jail inmates make a good transition to the community when they are released.

Students: architecture majors, spring semester of their sophomore year

Service: Professor Peter Temple and his students worked with Southwestern Community Services (SCS) of Cheshire County to design an apartment complex to serve as transitional housing for male prisoners released from jail. (About 70 percent of all released persons do not have a job or a place to live.)

The transitional housing will be more than an address – it will provide a solid steppingstone to end the cycle of crime in troubled lives. This housing will not only meet the need for shelter, but it will also provide space for training to obtain a driver's license (which 80 percent of released prisoners do not have), a G.E.D, and onsite addiction and counseling services. The occupants will learn how to live in a community and how to find compatible roommates when they leave the program after six to 12 months. Student teams worked closely with SCS to design a two-story apartment building with six two-bedroom units, public spaces on the first floor, and landscaped grounds with parking. The building site is adjacent to the new Cheshire County House of Corrections on Route 101.

Robin Hood Park Survey

Students: environmental studies students in their junior and senior years

Service: Students did a detailed natural resource inventory of the flora and fauna of Keene's Robin Hood Park to help the city of Keene determine the best management and usage policies for this popular property. Professors Bill Fleeger and Renate Gebauer helped students present their data at City Council and Conservation Commission meetings and on-campus forums last spring. The largest component of this research was data collection. Students split off into teams, with each group focusing on a particular aspect, such as identifying the different bio-systems in the park or documenting how visitors used the space.

Ashuelot River Park Study

Professor Bill Fleeger,Samantha Datti and Adam Marston photo by Chris Justice '97 Sponsored by Professor Bill Fleeger (at left), environmental studies students Samantha Datti and Adam Marston developed a resource inventory for Ashuelot River Park.

Students: environmental studies students in their junior and senior years

Service: Students in Professor Bill Fleeger's class worked to develop a management plan for the 152-acre Ashuelot River Park, off West Street in Keene. Their plan and the data they gathered will be used by the City of Keene Parks and Recreation Department and the Conservation Commission. Two more community partners benefiting from this project are the Ashuelot River Park advisory board and the Friends of Ashuelot River Park. The completed data will help assure that Ashuelot River Park remains undeveloped and accessible to the public.

Voices from the Field:
How (and Why) Service Learning Works

"In K-12, school is like a game. The point of the game, the end goal, is to 'get the grade.' It has nothing to do with the meaningful aspects of life. In college, students don't want to work in the abstract. Service learning provides context and lends meaning to the courses and jobs these students will experience. When a lot is riding on the solution, students pull it all together."

Peter Temple, KSC architecture professor and founder of Communicorps (a course in which architecture students collaborate with nonprofits on designing projects).

"What I valued most was that I got to see the actual connections between the science I was learning and the environmental needs of the city of Keene. Service learning is a valid thing for students today. The accountability factor changes everything. You aren't doing this work for a grade; it's going into someone's hand. You are also held accountable by your fellow students, because it's not just one name on that report – that file represents all of us."

John Lorette, continuing education student, college employee, and participant in the Robin Hood Park survey.

"It gives so much more depth to the learning experience." By the end of the junior/senior seminar, Fleeger noted a large increase in his students' sense of accomplishment and skills. "They put in much more time. They take so much more pride in it. The documents these students produce are bridges into the community."

Bill Fleeger, KSC environmental studies professor, on students' attitude toward their work.

"This work isn't going to just sit on a shelf; it's going to be used. You don't ever want to be embarrassed about the work you produce. You want to do the job well so that you can be confident and comfortable with your work."

Katie Bills '10, whose senior project was the historic preservation study.

"Working with students at a greater depth is so pleasurable. It's the hardest work for students and teachers, but it's also the most rewarding. My proudest moment, professionally, is seeing my students present their findings."

Christopher Cusack, KSC geography professor.

"The students have wonderfully practical ideas on how to set this up so it can be effective. In the end, we will be able to use a good portion of their plans. You could see throughout the course of this project that the students have latched on in a very personal way. I've worked with Communicorps students for several years. They've done many projects, all of which have a tremendous value to us. And the learning changes them. They have to be able to present themselves and their findings to us as professionals in the community. That is the best part – seeing their growth from the beginning to the end and their involvement in the community."

Keith Thibault, Southwestern Community Services, on the Second Chance for Success housing project.

"About six years ago, things between the College and city started gaining momentum. We each had our own issues and concerns that we wanted to address, but we also had a lot of ideas." The town and College are part of the community Town-Gown Commission, a group of representatives from both sides that meets every six weeks. "We are at a very good point now," Pregent continued. "Everyone's involved. We have city planners teaching classes at the College, and students interning with the city. I'm sure there's room for improvement, but I'm really happy. When you have as many students that impact the city of Keene as our college does, that's a huge thing!"

Keene Mayor Dale Pregent is also positive about the status of the relationship the College has with the town of Keene.

"You can't go through the gates that say "Enter to learn, go forth to serve" and not feel called to serve our community. "Striving" [the history of the College's first 75 years, by former professor James Smart] really helped me understand the long history Keene State College has with the city of Keene. The city itself helped fund the first building for Keene Normal School. During World War II, the College housed pilots in training and helped plant a community Victory Garden."

Helen Giles-Gee, president of Keene State College.

During her own student days at the University of Pennsylvania, President Giles-Gee worked for a nonprofit that helped community members stay in their homes when various other entities wanted to buy them out. "It was hard!," she said of her student work. "But it certainly developed in me a sense of responsibility for the lives of others and showed me that even the smallest acts of service can have a great effect on the community."

The work that students are doing for the city is not going unnoticed. Representatives from other colleges and cities such as Westfield State College and the town of North Adams have approached Keene and Keene State with questions about how they, too, can improve this essential relationship between college and community. President Giles-Gee hopes for even bigger and better things for the College and the city. "I hope to see more creative ways in which we can work together to impact the quality of life for all the citizens of Keene, students included."

About the author:
Hannah Dale '10 is from Loudon, New Hampshire. She was an English major and writing minor and a member of Sigma Tau Delta, English honor society. She hopes to use her degree and passion for service to do mission work in Africa and other regions through the Salvation Army.