Student Leadership on Historic Clock Is Community Catalyst

Last Updated: April 16, 2013

This article appeared in the April 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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Give students genuine leadership for something meaningful to do and they will run with it.

That’s just what students at Trimble High School in Trimble Township, Ohio are doing. Their work is centered on the refurbishment of the historic clock in Glouster, which along with the communities of Trimble and Jacksonville make up the Township. It is significant work, involving historical research, planning, and partnering with local adults. But the students’ work on the clock is even more: it’s a jumping off point for all kinds of activities that stretch the students and make life in the community better.

Glouster Clock
The 250-pound clock is lifted by crane for
transportation to the workshop where it is
being repaired. Photo by Donald E. Newell.

Amber Neel, one of the students in the sophomore English class that is leading the project, says that the work has been an interesting way to connect what they usually learn in books to things that have actually happened and can happen in the community. Student Terry Simerly, emphasizes that he sees the work making the community better and that makes him proud and motivated to do more.

The students’ involvement in the clock project began as a partnership between the students and eight adult mentors, representing several community groups. Initially, the plan had been to develop an inter-generational leadership program as part of a federal Promise Neighborhood grant. But when the grant request was turned down, the community decided to forge ahead.

One of the community groups, the Glouster Project, has worked for many years on a variety of improvement projects, including the restoration of the train depot where the clock is located. In October, the clock was dismantled for restoration. Sandra Vaughan, President of the Glouster Project explains: “Part of our mission is to maintain relationships with youth, the school, and families. So we were excited to partner with students.”

In January, the students were asked to come up with ideas and plans for how to further the clock project. Their teacher, Tim Ellifritz, helps tie their work to core academic standards required by the state. Ohio University professors Sharon Reynolds and Mike Hess partner with students, community mentors, Ellifritz, and school officials to develop the students’ work as an example of the kind of place-based learning approaches that can be extended to other subjects and grade levels.

“It’s important that the adults always stay focused on the students taking the leadership role,” says Reynolds. “When students are driving the work, they feel valued and are invested.”

Student leadership goes to promising and unexpected places

When presented with the challenge, students discussed what they wanted to do and met with their mentors, including representatives of Glouster Project and the Athens County Historical Society and Museum, and the groups Bridge Builders and Promise Trimble. Then they decided to organize themselves into four work groups. The groups meet with each other regularly to share what they are doing, build connections across their work, and spark ideas. They also work extensively in the community.

The History group is researching the history of the clock. “We’re doing historic document searches,” explains Simerly. Just as importantly, the group is conducting interviews and collecting oral histories to document the experiences of local people in relation to the clock. The group has also created a logo for the project.

The Celebration & Future of the Clock group is planning an event to celebrate and dedicate the clock. “There will be a celebration when the clock comes back to the depot,” says Adrianna Alfman. The students have already created formal invitations and are designing a t-shirt to be sold at the event. There will also be activities held in conjunction with Alumni Weekend in May.

In addition, the group is thinking about the future. “We want to understand what has happened [at the depot around the clock] and to think about what could happen, what the clock has meant in our community and how that connects to our future,” says Tessa Fierce. The group is developing a plan to make sure the clock is taken care of, and they are working to create a plaque commemorating the clock and their work. They would love to see an annual community celebration of the clock springing from their efforts.

The Navigational group has as its charge thinking about how to connect the past and future. They are investigating the history of train depot in Glouster and collecting information and stories about who came through the town and how local people used the depot in their travels. They also see themselves in a position between the older adults whose memories and experiences they are collecting and the generations behind them who will be looking for ways to connect to the community’s history.

The Social Landscaping group is working on how to use the space around the clock — at the depot and in the town square — to connect people within and across the community. “We want to re-condition the town square to make it a place where people want to go, to develop the social context of the square,” says student Mike Williams. Students are considering the physical appearance of the area around the clock and inside the depot. They are re-landscaping the square and re-laying brick and have negotiated with the mayor and town officials. They are also researching nearby buildings and thinking about how the whole area around the clock can be used now and in the future.

The students have presented their work in public, to the school board, and to several community groups. And, of course, they are writing. They each keep a journal and they are working with poet Diane Fisher. They will fold much of what they have learned is into a book which will include their poems, artwork and reflections about the clock and the history of their community. “The book is a record of history for the next group of people down the line,” says Fierce. It will be released in the community at the clock celebration in May.

Teacher Tim Ellifritz compliments the students’ tenacity and their ability to ask good questions. “You can see a difference in the students,” he says. “It’s like a light bulb comes on when they realize they have responsibility. They take such an active part. Every day is a surprise. I’m loving every minute.”

Youth leadership for community development

This kind of student leadership and enthusiasm is just what the community groups hoped for.

“All the students are talking at once, articulating ideas,” says community mentor Donna Jensen Besaw of the group Promise Trimble.

“They have so much initiative,” adds Hess. “They’re making movies, taking photographs, creating PowerPoint presentations. And they are reaching out — to the school board, the newspaper, the entire community.”

“It’s amazing to use history as a basis for positive outlook from youth,” says Lynne Newell of the Athens County Historical Society.

Glouster is an old coal mining town, and it has had some rough patches as it moves toward a new future. Its community groups understood they needed the engagement of young people.

“We work from asset-based community development theory,” says Besaw. “And, we wanted to involve youth because kids understand the village. They can help us.”

Vaughan reiterates the importance of youth involvement: “We wanted to create an intergenerational leadership project; it helps build community relations.”

The approach is paying off. L.R. Faires, one of the community mentors, calls the students “amazing.” He says, “I’ve stopped hearing bad things in the community. At ballgames and in the grocery story, I hear so many good things because of what the students are doing.”

Claudia Guffey of Bridge Builders says it’s been rewarding to see the students grow and adds, “you need someone other than your parents telling you that you’re doing good. That pat on the back can mean a lot.” The others agree. They also say they have been inspired by how much the students support each other.

The most surprising aspect of the collaboration has been the whole idea of social landscaping. “That idea is so interesting and connects so many things. To think that our kids are bringing that kind of thought to our community,” says Faires.

There’s something of a renaissance going on in Glouster. People are cleaning up. There’s a town blog.

Where the whole effort goes next is something everyone is excited to see. “It’s very organic,” says Newell. “We want to let it develop rather than try to determine what happens.”

Everyone agrees that it’s about collaboration. “It’s not a one-person or one-organization show,” adds Newell.

Making sense from a student perspective

For their part, the students say the work has been fun, something they want to do. “We’ve never done anything like this,” says Mike Williams. “This is more hands-on and involved in the community,” adds Fierce.

That community engagement keeps them going. “People are happy we are asking them things,” says Simerly. “People smile and laugh; sometimes they sing songs for us. Especially the old people, it brings joy to the old people to know that we care.”

That engagement is a two-way street. “People know a lot more than we think,” adds Simerly. Neel reinforces that perspective adding that the project is a lot about showing respect for people in the community. “So much has happened here and people know so much,” she says.

Alfman emphasizes the dawning of a more positive attitude in the community. “The more people who have a more positive outlook, the fewer problems we’ll have,” she says. 

The students insist that in the end their work has not been so much about the clock as it has been “about putting pride in the community.” They have gained a fresh appreciation for their own place, and they believe that people who live in the community as well as people in nearby towns see Glouster in a new way. “There’s a lot of potential in this community for students and for everybody,” says Fierce.

“We’re good people, we’re smart, and we’re not afraid to take pride in our community,” adds Simerly.

Glouster Clock

Students pose with Glouster’s historic clock. 

Pride + Contribution

The students’ pride means a lot to the adults. Newell notes: “Their pride in the community. It’s exciting.” And Faires emphasizes, “All students have something to contribute and the pride that comes from that, the community pride, that’s something to hold on to.”

Vaughan says the Glouster Project is thrilled with the directions the students are taking and the way it’s sparking ideas and hope across the community. “This work,” she says, “It’s really about who we’re going to become.”

Click here to see the students’ PowerPoint presentation.


Read more from the April 2013 Rural Policy Matters.