Win-win deal: students learn, town rebuilds

How do you jump-start a town that had its heyday before 1900? That's a question community leaders are pondering in Big Springs, Neb.

One answer has been to reopen a hotel shuttered three decades ago. In 1994, two local sisters bought the town's defunct guest house, the Phelps Hotel, and turned it into a working bed-and-breakfast, hoping to lure travelers off nearby Interstate 80, even as in its livelier days the hundred-year-old hotel drew entrepreneurs -including John Jacob Astor -heading westward on the train line.

But for Tim Cooper, science teacher in the local high school, news of the hotel's renovation suggested a second idea for helping to revitalize the town. He arranged for the school's sophomore class to take charge of the renovation of one of the hotel's six rooms. Involvement with the hotel, Mr. Cooper says, showed local kids that a small-town business could be viable. "I wanted them to see that this can happen here," he says.

The hotel wasn't the only project drawing on student talents. The local springs, for which Union Pacific Railroad officials named the town in 1867, had long ago become clogged. In 1997, local volunteers began to clear them, and students in the high school's industrial-arts classes were assigned the project of designing and building redwood bridges to span the springs.

Seniors Zach Purcell and Monte Wiber worked at the springs and say it was an enjoyable, practical, learning experience. Junior Ryan Johnson also participated. "It gave me a better understanding of one of the main points of the town," he says.

But for some teachers, it's the assistance the students provide that's truly essential. Vocational agriculture teacher Andy Christensen requires members of his classes to do soil and feed testing and water analysis for local farmers. "We're in a world of hurt right now in the agricultural world," he says. Whatever the students can do, he insists, can only help.

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