With U of A Help, Arkansas High School Students Write Business Plans to Better Their Communities

Armorel High School student Emma Haskins, third from right, meets with civic leaders from the Blytheville area to discuss the Cold War Museum planned on the former Alert Pad at Eaker Air Force Base.
Courtesy of Alicia Bell

Armorel High School student Emma Haskins, third from right, meets with civic leaders from the Blytheville area to discuss the Cold War Museum planned on the former Alert Pad at Eaker Air Force Base.

Emma Haskins was born in 2000 — nearly a decade after the Cold War had come to an end. Yet the high school student is a pivotal player in a plan to create a Cold War Museum on the former Alert Pad at Eaker Airforce Base near Blytheville, Ark.

Haskins is one of several Northeast Arkansas students working to better their communities through SISTA — Students Involved in Sustaining Their Arkansas — a project of the Brown Chair in English Literacy in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.

The participating high school students' charge: to research a community need and write a business proposal to fulfill it. 

Students meet with community leaders at table
Below, Armorel students Marybeth Byrd and Emily Davis discuss their project with Lieutenant Chuck Brown and Dustin Polk of the Criminal Investigation Division at the Mississippi County Sheriff's office.

"SISTA focuses on helping students envision projects or business ideas for their hometowns that will revitalize or sustain them," said Julia Paganelli, program director and a student in the University of Arkansas' M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing and Translation. "Once the projects are developed, we work to find philanthropic and foundation funding to bring them to fruition."

Students work via email and Internet with Paganelli, who guides them through every step of the project, from conducting oral histories to writing timelines and budgets to crafting the proposal as a whole.

"It's amazing to see the students write these things that then come to fruition and get funding," she said.

Students have engaged a variety of projects over the past three years, including the creation of a healthy nutrition center, a community arts studio, a "smart water" irrigation project, a tourism authority and a green-grocery farmer's market.

This year, proposals include a panic-button app or website to speed response to child abduction, an afternoon tutoring service and Haskins' Cold War Museum project.

Haskins, an Armorel High School junior, developed the idea through conversations with her local chamber of commerce, the former mayor of Blytheville, the son of a Cold War military pilot and her high school EAST teacher, Alicia Bell. 

EAST, or Environmental and Spatial Technologies, is a project-based service-learning program that seeks to better the community through the use of technology. SISTA partners with EAST programs in several Northeast Arkansas high schools to recruit and support students who wish to participate.

This year, Armorel High School and Buffalo Island Central High School took part.

"SISTA is a wonderful experience for students," Bell said. "The program gives them specific, focused, real-world experience they don't have an opportunity to get in school. They're dealt with as adults, taking roles in the community they wouldn't have a chance to take otherwise."

High school students develop a deeper appreciation for their communities through the process of working on their proposals, Bell said. One student expressed an interest in returning to Mississippi County after college, rather than leaving as she had planned.

The yearlong program includes two trips to the U of A campus — oftentimes an eye-opening experience for the small-town students, Bell said. The visits typically include some sort of cultural event as well as meetings with the SISTA staff and working on proposal revisions with Paganelli and the Business Communication Lab in the Sam M. Walton College of Business.

"High school students don't get this type of experience," Bell said. "They may tour the campus, but they don't actually work with graduate students."

The SISTA program teaches critical thinking skills that carry over into college and adulthood, Paganelli said. Students report that their writing also improves exponentially. That's because they're working on projects that are meaningful to them, said David Jolliffe, professor in the Department of English and holder of the Brown Chair in English Literacy.

"As an educator who has spent four decades helping students learn to read critically and write effectively, I view SISTA as demonstrating an often-overlooked idea: when students get to choose what they want to conduct research and write about, they rise to the occasion and do exemplary work," Jolliffe said. 

Additionally, developing a business proposal fosters a sense of efficacy that allows high school students to step into leadership roles.

"Grant-writing is like practical dreaming," Paganelli said. "You can dream about the way you see your community whole, the way you see people functioning together, but grant-writing really allows you to say, okay, this is how we do it.

"That's what I see as the value of this project - students in high schools learning how to measure their dreams and their visions for their communities."

Of the six projects proposed in the past three years, most are in some stage of becoming reality. SISTA is working with a local bank to fund a joint music/community meals center in Brinkley, a combination of two student proposals. A proposal to add art to David's Trail in Mountain Home has been amended somewhat: The community will come together to create a temporary art exhibit during the David's Trail Endurance Run in January 2018.

A proposal to create a Mississippi County tourism coordinator has been funded with help from Arkansas State University. An ASU graduate student from Blytheville will fill the position part-time next fall.

SISTA is still seeking funding for the SMART Water Project and the outdoor farmer's market, projects created by students at Buffalo Island High School in Leachville.

Rylee Nelson is a senior at Armorel High School who helped write the proposal for the tourism coordinator. When she learned that the grant had been funded, she was at a loss for words.

"I was dumbfounded, at first," Nelson said. "Then it was, 'Oh, my, gosh, we did it!' I'll take this forward with me. I know how to write a business proposal."


Bettina Lehovec, staff writer
University Relations
479-575-7422, blehovec@uark.edu

Andra Parrish Liwag, director of communications
J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences
479-575-4393, liwag@uark.edu


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