Expanding program links rural and urban high schoolers

2014-01-30T00:00:00Z 2014-01-30T09:47:16Z Expanding program links rural and urban high schoolersBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Forsyth High is a little bit country and Skyview is a little bit rock 'n' roll. 

But together, students from the two high schools are learning about what makes their communities unique, what ties them together, and how entrepreneurship works in rural and urban settings. 

"It was a lot more fun than I was expecting," said Julie McElvain, a freshman at Skyview. 

In October, the Skyview students traveled to Forsyth, toured the town and visited some of the locally based businesses with their counterparts from Forsyth High. The next day, they attended class at the high school.

"It was really weird," said Christian O'Loughlin, a Skyview freshman. "The school is so small."

The two high schools have partnered through the nonprofit OneMontana and its Rural-Urban Student Entrepreneur Exchange program. 

Connecting rural and urban students along with their communities seemed like a simple and ingenious way to open up dialogue between the two groups as well as expose them to what entrepreneurship looked like in the state. 

"I was amazed that no one was doing it," said Lisa Grace, executive director of OneMontana.

OneMontana ran a pilot program last year with Bozeman and Harlowton high school students and expanded it this year to include Billings and Forsyth, and Great Falls and White Sulphur Springs. A grant from the BNSF Railway Foundation allowed OneMontana to expand the program. 

"We're trying to grow it all over the state," Grace said. 

In November, when it was time for the Forsyth students to visit Billings, the Skyview students took them on a tour of some local businesses — everything from Master Lube to Pacific Recycling to Wendy's — and then spent a day at Skyview. 

And like their Billings counterparts, the Forsyth students found spending the day at such a different high school to be a strange experience.

"It was very different," said Dannon Purkett, a freshman at Forsyth.

The students in Forsyth, all 112 of them, know each other. She said at Skyview, where the students population is 10 times the size of Forsyth's, it was clear students could never get to know everyone there.  

Cindy Bergum, who teaches family consumer science at Skyview and has a class named Made in Montana, approached her students about participating in the OneMontana project earlier this school year. 

Grace had called School District 2 headquarters and pitched the idea. Bergen's Made in Montana class made her the first choice for SD2 officials to approach. 

Bergum loved the idea and she presented it to her students; a dozen volunteered to participate. 

"It looked like a lot of fun and and it gave us the chance to get out of school," O'Loughlin said with a laugh. 

Students saw first hand the differences between a rural and an urban community, which is what the teachers wanted the students to see. 

"They always think the grass is greener, you know," said Kim Knoche, the teacher at Forsyth.

But through the visits they were able to see the pros and cons with each community and how businesses adapted. 

"It's a real-world view," Knoche said. 

Along with the visits to each other's towns, the students also put together a business project as part of the program. The projects will be showcased in April when the students from the two towns get back together. 

But more than that, leaders are hopeful the connections the students made with each other will remain. It occured between the Bozeman and Harlowton students and really enriched their experience. 

"I was hoping they'd get a chance to make some friends," Knoche said. "And they connected right off."

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