Students Lead the Way for Community Development

The future of Kearney may just rest in the capable hands of five extraordinary high school students.

Kearney High School students Peyton Still, Flannery Simmons, Danielle Barnes, Aidyn Foltz and Megan Zingerman pose in downtown Kearney.

Kearney High School scholars are engaged in a pair of data-driven projects that are giving them the opportunity to help shape their community. One project involves gathering input about how to make the downtown neighborhood more attractive for residents and visitors. In the other project, students are discovering the qualities that professionals seek when choosing where to work remotely.

Both enterprises come broadly under the category of “Real World Learning” (RWL) and provide uniquely valuable experiences for the students who are participating, according to KHS junior Megan Zingerman.

“I think for me the biggest realization was that we can make a difference,” Megan said. “This is something I’ll take with me for the rest of my life. You don’t learn that in a textbook.”

“I think for me the biggest realization was that we can make a difference.”

Megan Zingerman, Kearney High School junior

The Kearney downtown revitalization project started when Kearney School District leaders realized there was an opening to connect it with the RWL initiative, according to Beth Freeman. Ms. Freeman, the KSD Career Readiness Coordinator, and KHS marketing teacher Jennifer Remley collaborate on these types of projects. The district forged a partnership with the Kearney Economic Vitality Committee in order to explore opportunities to involve students.

“We saw this as a chance to get students out of classrooms and working on something that could have a positive impact on our community,” Ms. Freeman said. “The committee could not be more excited to have these students working on this project.”

This school year, Megan, senior Aidyn Foltz and junior Flannery Simmons stepped up to take the lead by launching a survey of Kearney community members. They carefully crafted the survey and distributed it widely.

The survey’s goal was to ascertain what people want in a vital downtown, according to Flannery.

“As a young person who cares about this community, I’d like to see it become a successful downtown,” he said. “I think that’s especially important as more and younger families are moving in.”

This will be an ongoing project as the students gather responses, analyze the data and then develop recommendations for the committee members. The students are definitely seeing some common themes developing, according to Aidyn.

“People really seem to want more entertainment options. We also see a need for more curbside appeal downtown,” she said. “I grew up here and it feels good to be part of making this an even better place to live.”

KHS seniors Danielle Barnes and Peyton Still are working towards a similar goal – improving the community – but from a different angle. In their case, it means finding out how Kearney and similar cities can become more attractive options for remote workers.

KHS seniors Danielle Barnes and Peyton Still collaborate on their client-connected project.

The idea for this project really took shape when COVID-19 arrived and significantly more people were suddenly doing their jobs from home. Suburban and rural communities began making the case as viable alternatives for corporate employees who were no longer commuting to urban offices.

“We wanted to know what it takes to convince these remote workers to move to a rural or suburban town,” Danielle said. “We need to understand what’s important to those people, because virtual work is here to stay.”

Danielle and Peyton have been learning how to build and manage a complex, long-term development study under the guidance of entrepreneurship experts at the Kauffman Foundation. That involves surveying staff at some the region’s biggest corporate employers, including Hallmark, Garmin and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City.

“We’re really going step-by-step through this and being very purposeful about it,” Peyton said. “One thing I’ve learned is that there’s a lot less magic to it than you might think. It’s us doing the work and it’s very detailed and methodical.”