Junior Leadership Academy group winners roll out ‘479’ student center concept for downtown Fort Smith

by Aric Mitchell (aric.mitchell@gmail.com) 519 views 

The Junior Leadership Academy (JLA) has wrapped up its inaugural year as a partnership between the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce and Fort Smith Public Schools (FSPS), and named the winning team for its group competition.

The “Red” Group, consisting of Southside High School students Caitlin Paris, Berkley Cooper, and Josie Tilley, and Northside High School students Michelle Torres, Anna Kate Dooly, and Hayden Marshell, took top honors for a project entitled, “The 479,” a student collaboration center located in downtown Fort Smith.

Each group presentation was judged by a panel of five judges comprised of area business leaders and were scored based on originality, presentation and business plan. The groups gave final 10-minute “Shark Tank”-like pitches earlier this month, but on Thursday (March 16), “Red” Group received their “awards,” which the Chamber had kept secret during the entirety of the eight-month program — a $1,000 cash prize split evenly among the group.

According to Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim Allen, the JLA journey began in August 2016. That’s when the Chamber was able to winnow down the 59 applicants to the 30 students, who would be accepted into the program (15 Northside, 15 Southside).

“From there, we broke them into groups and gave them very little guidance on purpose because we wanted them to own it, and figure out how they were going to implement their project idea from start to finish,” Allen said.

Student groups met once each month on a full school day – usually the fourth Wednesday, according to Chamber Senior Education Coordinator Debra Young – with the goal “not to implement but to design,” and the students did not disappoint in their creations.

“We had a group that wanted to do a zip line park, a group that wanted to bring an aquarium to Fort Smith, a group that talked about doing a mentoring program for kids transitioning from elementary to junior high and then junior high to senior high; and then the other was an educational program for fifth and sixth graders, teaching them different themes for each month and school,” Young said.

Josie Tilley explained the concept of “The 479” student collaboration center, stating the name came from the city’s area code and, if implemented, it would be in a building in downtown Fort Smith.

“It would be for student use and have textbooks and computers and big tables for open conversations. It would be open to high schools, private schools, UAFS college students, junior high — anyone who wanted to use the facility, it would be there for them and would have all the resources they would need,” she said.

Berkley Cooper said the impetus for the group’s project came while they were at Sweet Bay brainstorming project ideas. While the monthly daylong sessions allowed a little time to work on projects, Cooper said, the group had to find time to work independently as well.

“We were sitting at Sweet Bay one day, and looked around and heard a lot of noises. There’s someone a lot younger than you, someone a lot older than you. We just thought, ‘What if there was somewhere to go that is just students?’ Some might say, ‘Well, isn’t this like a library?’ But at a library you have to be really quiet, and this would be a place where you could be more open — an open concept building.”

Tilley believes her generation “leans to” this type of environment.

“I think we like open collaboration, where you’re not sitting in a cubicle. This would be where you’re not secluded from people. You could turn to each other and say, ‘What about this or that?’ and bounce ideas off each other.”

As part of the concept, “The 479” would also have a component for the public. During the school year, it would be open to businesses and entrepreneurs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. before student hours kicked in from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Weekend days would be students only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Allen said he has reached out to “high net-worth individuals” in the community to talk about the possibility of implementing “The 479” in some form.

He also noted the JLA program will be open “countywide” in the 2017-2018 School Year. The program’s application deadline was March 3, according to the chamber website, with 63 applications received from Northside, Southside, Greenwood, Union Christian Academy, and Future School of Fort Smith.

As for the first year’s crop of talent, four of the “Red” members — Cooper, Tilley, Caitlin Paris, and Michelle Torres — were eager to come back as mentors for next year’s class, an idea that resonated with Young and Allen, who said they were hoping to oblige.

Paris said the program, which included tours of Fort Smith area businesses, had shown her that “Fort Smith is not bland. There is really cool stuff that goes on here every day, things I never knew about before the program.” Paris specifically cited the lifelike robots at Mercy and Sparks used to simulate patient outcomes.

“I didn’t even know we had anything like this, and it was just really cool to see that businesses we drive by every day are doing things to progress our society.”

Students like Torres, who are admittedly shy about approaching others, said the JLA experience “made me get out of my shell, while before this, I just kept to myself,” a point reiterated by Cooper.

“I thought I’d always been an extrovert, but I would never approach someone I didn’t know at all, but with JLA, and working with my group, it helped me grow more confidence in myself and made me feel like a leader. I felt proud of myself for doing something like this.”

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