CHAMPAIGN – On Tuesday morning, about 80 Champaign County high school students skipped class.
For good reason.
They participated in the first "Big. Small. All. Champaign County." dialogue, held at Parkland College. Representing several area high schools, the students lent their perspective and enthusiasm to a formidable question: How can we make Champaign County better?
"It's always nice to start with young people, because (this project) is about the future," said Gianni Longo, a principal with the New York firm of ACP-Visioning & Planning, which was hired by the county to help coordinate the yearlong project.
In small group sessions, led by facilitators from Parkland's High Tech Edge class for high schoolers, students took a few minutes to collect their ideas for that future.
Then the brainstorm began.
In group No. 2, led by Unity High School junior Jeanine Russell, ideas ran the gamut from an amusement park to the redevelopment of old buildings to healthier food in restaurants.
"I wasn't expecting it to be as deep as we got," said Alec Vitosky of Urbana High School.
His suggestion for a recreation center open to high school students sparked excited discussion and embellishment from his peers. They wanted a safe place, one with games, ping pong, maybe some concerts or dance lessons.
After all the ideas were collected in a list, the students voted on their top choices.
Group 2 decided that Champaign County would be bettered by that recreation center; more citywide or countywide events; more citizen/government interaction; expanding small towns – but not connecting them; more local attractions; and more youth-centered activities, like sports.
Russell was pleasantly surprised by all the ideas and by the smooth flow of the program. "I was a little bit nervous," she said of her first time as facilitator. "I think it turned out pretty well."
So did the students in the group. Jumping over each other's voices, they all chimed in to talk about the morning's session.
"I think some of the (ideas) are good, and they will happen," said LaShanda Johnson of Rantoul Township High School. She hopes she and other students keep participating in Big. Small. All., now that they've started thinking about the topic. "We'd have more to say about it."
Mari Mermelstein of Urbana High School liked the idea of Big. Small. All., but was cautious about what she hoped would happen.
"I loved growing up here," she said. "I don't want to change anything. I like how it is."
And Hannah Snyder of University Laboratory High School welcomed the opportunity to interact with students from other schools and suggested the county find more ways to make that happen. "My school has like 300 people, and you get sick of them," she said.
After the discussion, groups came together to present their favorite ideas.
With much laughter and applause for favorite suggestions, students voted for better health care, more parks and a countywide student exchange program and dance. Many also wanted more transportation and quicker emergency services to small towns, healthy school lunches and preservation of farmland, among other ideas.
Every idea, including those that weren't favorites, was collected for inclusion in a master database for use in the next steps of the county planning project.
Chris Taylor of Urbana High School plans to hold the county to that.
"I'm keeping track of all my ideas, and hopefully 20 years from now," he said, "I will see some of my ideas in action."