PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Sophomores at Presque Isle High School recently cut class and were seen hanging out in a downtown alleyway. However, they weren’t reprimanded or punished, but instead praised for their efforts as they were working on a downtown beautification project.
Since August, students in LeRae Kinney’s civics class have been involved in Project Citizen, a national curricular program that promotes participation in local and state government.
“I’ve incorporated the mission of Project Citizen into my curriculum at the high school level. I thought it was an awesome opportunity to get the kids out into the community and to make a difference,” said Kinney. “This project also meets one of the Maine Learning Results standards for social studies. It seemed like a fun way to meet the standards and for the kids to realize that they can make a difference.”
After lots of discussion and a trip to inspect the site, students selected the alleyway on State Street between the A.M. Smith and R.W. Wight buildings as a spot in town that desperately needed some attention.
“There’s a lot of businesses around here, and all of us have used the alleyway, and we agreed that it was in rough shape,” student Lucie Simpson said.
There were several steps, however, that needed to be taken before the students actually began the cleanup.
“They had to find at least three pieces of evidence to prove that it was a true need in the community and not just something they thought was a good idea,” Kinney said. “They interviewed the business owners on the corner of State and Main streets, surveyed patrons of the businesses, and invited a code enforcement officer to speak to the class about what they could and couldn’t do, and various issues they needed to consider when coming up with a plan. Their results yielded, hands down, this is a need in the community.”
The class, Kinney said, was broken down into groups of three or four and each group developed a PowerPoint presentation, as well as individual journal entries to document their progress.
“The next step was to come up with at least three proposals for the cleanup and potential ideas for improving the space,” she said. “They also needed to identify the advantages and disadvantages of each proposal. Once they completed this step, they invited the landlord to class and shared all their findings and their three proposals via PowerPoint. They asked for both his permission to complete the project and his input on which proposal he would like to see happen. He was both excited and impressed with all of the hard work, thought and planning they had clearly put into the project up to that point.”
The proposal that was decided on included sweeping and cleaning up trash, pulling weeds, removing a tree growing out of the side of one of the buildings, and creating a color-blocking mural on the buildings.
“They wanted to do something bright and cheerful,” Kinney said. “We didn’t want to go with traditional ‘rainbow colors,’ so that’s why we incorporated colors like teal and violet.”
“We wanted to bring some color to the walls,” student Leslie Mejia said. “This area is not very inviting. We took surveys, and more than half of the people who frequent the alleyway said that they felt unsafe, so we wanted to make it feel more inviting.”
Brandon Collins said it’s very rewarding to be involved in such a visible project.
“I like painting, but I’ve never painted walls like this,” he said. “It’s been fun. … I love the colors. It’s bright, eye-popping and awesome.
“It will mean a lot to me to be able to look back and know that I had a hand in this. … I was part of painting it, part of cleaning it up, part of planning it and getting surveys. … Through the whole process, I was a part of it and we’re making it happen,” Collins said. “That’s very rewarding.”
“When this is all finished, I’ll be able to walk down and say, ‘I was a part of that. I made that look nicer,’” she said. “That will mean a lot to me.”
Recognizing that her 22 students could have worked in smaller groups on other projects, Kinney said her class chose to band together.
“I couldn’t have hand-picked a better group of kids,” she said. “They wanted to work together, and they figured they could make a bigger impact that way.”
Edward Wright, who co-owns the two buildings, said he was impressed with the students’ ambition.
“I was intrigued that they wanted to work on the alley, specifically, as their project,” he said. “I was amazed that they followed through and were able to get it done in the time that they wanted to. It definitely adds a lot of color. They took a dreary, dark, sometimes scary place and brightened it right up.”
“It’s very bright, very colorful and it adds a lot of character. I’m extremely happy,” he said.
Paint and many of the supplies were donated by Lowe’s in Presque Isle. The students also were awarded a grant from the Aroostook Partners in the Arts to help fund the project.