BENNINGTON -- Representatives from the Bennington Economic Development Partners, the Bennington County Industrial Corporation, and the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union traveled to the schools that participated in the Southshire Challenge on Thursday, awarding each group with a $50 check and a certificate.

Jeanne Jenkins, who chairs the BEDP's Workforce and Education Committee; SVSU superintendent Catherine McClure; and BCIC director Peter Odierna visited the Sacred Heart School, Shaftsbury Elementary, the Southshire Community School, and Mount Anthony Union High School.

The Southshire Challenge, in its first year, is a new initiative in which local businesses or government organizations presented students in grades K-12 with a challenge.

Jeanne Jenkins and Peter Odierna present a certificate and a $50 check to students of the Sacred Heart School, for completing the Southshire Challenge
Jeanne Jenkins and Peter Odierna present a certificate and a $50 check to students of the Sacred Heart School, for completing the Southshire Challenge (Derek Carson)
These challenges ranged from writing a play for Oldcastle Theatre Company, to designing a public space for kids to learn and create for the Town of Bennington, to marketing snowboard bindings for Abacus Automation.

The challenge will return again next year, with a few twists, according to Jenkins. First, area colleges will now have the opportunity to participate. Second, educators will now be able to turn the tables and present challenges to local businesses. Jenkins said information on how to get involved with the second Southshire Challenge will be distributed in the coming weeks.

The group first visited middle school students of the Sacred Heart School, who had toured K&E Plastics and met owner Eric Broderson. One student, Olivia Salem, of Bennington, said, "We got to tour the plant, and see how everything is run by computers. It showed us that what we're learning in technology today is the future of business. It was interesting to see how what we're learning now is applicable to what we might be doing in the future."

"We're happy that you did it, and I know K&E Plastics is happy that you did it," said Jenkins.

Teacher Kathy Murphy said she felt that the students had learned a lot by working with K&E, but that, "I think we could have taken it to another level, it being the first year."

At Shaftsbury Elementary, students designed a public space, complete with pet rooms, sports rooms, fashion rooms, and an observatory for the Town of Bennington. Teacher Laura Boudreau asked her fourth grade students how many of them had changed their dream careers since participating in the challenge, and almost half the students raised their hands. Jenkins invited them all to participate again next year, "Think about what you did this year, and ways to build on it. Dream big!"

At the Southshire School, where students worked with retired teacher and playwright Gerry Cuite and Oldcastle Theatre director Eric Peterson to write their own play, one student spoke of how the challenge brought her and her classmates closer together.

"At the beginning, we weren't really close friends, but by the end of the process we were spending time together outside the project," she said.

Ann Fitzgerald, their teacher, said, "I think it was a great experience for them. Within a couple of weeks they were able to do it with no self-consciousness at all. They learned that mistakes are good things, that you can learn from them."

One student, Nolan, said that the challenge had taught him a valuable lesson in problem-solving. "Don't try to go around a problem," he said, "just try to push through it. If you go around a problem, you'll just run into it again later, so you're just delaying the inevitable."

At the high school, the group met with students from the high school, middle school, and Career Development Center, each of whom had unique challenges and experiences of their own. One group from the CDC, which worked with Abacus Automation to market their "Original Spin" snowboard bindings. "I learned, on the marketing end," said one of the students, "that there are other competitors out there, so you need to find ways to market your product that they don't."

Another group worked with Southwestern Vermont Health Care to make a video promoting the reduction of sugary drink intake in youth, with the goal to get 6,000 views on YouTube. When Jim Tremarkey, who was representing SVHC, saw the video for the first time, he didn't know what to think. The students, instead of a documentary, had produced a trailer for a horror film, with sugary drinks as the main villain. "I have three little kids, and I pulled up the video on YouTube, and they were on the edge of their seats. That's when I realized, I'd missed the boat here. What they did was awesome," he said.

At the end of the tour, Jenkins said, "We want to continue this. The feedback from the kids has been incredible."

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB