Walk through the halls of Burrton High School on any given day and chances are you may see students working on some unique homework projects — whether helping with one of the many blood drives BHS puts on, participating in the school-wide recycling initiative, contributing to beautification efforts (both at the school and throughout the city) and more.
That service to the community is part of the curriculum in Chris Jensen's Social Studies classes at Burrton High School. While not altogether uncommon across the country, that spotlight Jensen shone on civic engagement was a fairly new concept for the Burrton school district when he began pursuing changes to the curriculum shortly into his teaching tenure in USD 369.
"I'm expanding it," Jensen said of that dedication to service. "I'm just trying to make it so there's more of the engagement with the community."
For Jensen, it was his service in the military that he admitted opened his eyes to that need for engagement in one's community. While he didn't remember having that type of commitment to the community as a kid, he remembered his mom embodying that attitude — a big inspiration for him.
After his revelatory time serving in the army, Jensen went back and started volunteering his time at Boys State (which he has done for 20 years now). He also got into a career in education, teaching in Conway Springs before coming to Burrton. When he took a position in USD 369 seven years ago, he noted he came in with the intent of fully investing in the community — which led to a trickle-down effect and passing that on to his students.
Upon joining the staff in Burrton, Jensen said he was asked to help grade essays for entry into the National Honor Society and started to notice a trend. Of the four components rated for consideration, nearly all applicants were lacking in the realm of community service.
"Kids who were 4.0 students had zero community service," Jensen said.
Shortly after taking note of that trend, Jensen approached current superintendent Joan Simoneau (the high school principal at the time) about a project that could change that. Jensen had a two-pronged plan of attack to generate that investment in the community — have students donate their time in the community, like volunteering at the food pantry, and be actively involved in the government process (i.e. attending a school board or city council meeting), both pillars of civic engagement.
That change of course was pitched five years ago and while there were some initial detractors, Jensen had the support of both Simoneau and her successor at BHS, Tyler Hoopes, the whole time. More importantly, what was a rarity among high school students quickly started to become the norm.
When Jensen first arrived, he said he would often hear about vandalism complaints being brought up at city council meetings — and Burrton students often receiving the blame. Over the years, as the high school students have become more involved and invested, those issues have dwindled to the point where citizens knew a recent issue of vandalism at the basketball court in the city park had no ties to local kids because of how much work they had put into that and other public facilities.
"Now, if something happens in the community like that they're upset, so that proves to me they're taking ownership," Jensen said of his students.
Additionally, while Jensen has sophomores, juniors and seniors in his classes, recent groups of incoming freshmen have been eager to get started on community service projects and put in work over the summer before their sophomore years.
For Jensen's class, students are required to complete three civic engagement tasks (at least one each of service and observing the government process) every semester, but Jensen has grown accustomed to seeing more and more students going above and beyond.
"They realize they get their three done and anything after that is extra credit. If they do eight for the semester, then they get out of their final, so now I have kids doing eight," Jensen said. "Probably three years ago when I first offered that, I had maybe one or two kids and now I have entire classes that don't take their final because they wanna go out and get their eight credits."
It's a mentality students are now taking with them even beyond high school, as Jensen noted numerous students have received the presidential scholarship to attend Hutchinson Community College, like 2017 graduate Marissa Hurst. Part of the scholarship stipulations require 100 hours of service, something students like Hurst get accustomed to in Jensen's class.
"She has her 100 hours done before anybody else does. She's calling me because we've got the blood drives and she's coming back here to work the blood drives," Jensen said. "That's a really cool thing when we have kids who are coming back to give back. To me, that's the most valuable thing."
Acting as senior class sponsor, Jensen has also helped direct the legacy projects of some recent graduating classes. Typically, he said the class will try to save $500 to $1,000 from its senior trip to go towards a project helping improve the school. This year, the seniors helped to replace/replant trees on the high school campus.
Other endeavors, like helping Numana Inc. in shipping food to third-world countries, have become so popular among students that they have even volunteered outside of school-organized events (like helping out a church in Hutchinson earlier this year), which might be the best part about the process for Jensen.
"To me, that's the thing I'm most proud of. We can sit in class and teach 'em about Vietnam or teach 'em about World War II. I don't know, in 10 years, what kind of effect that is gonna have on them, but they'll remember this for their life. Kids go away for college and they want to become involved now," Jensen said. "Basically the idea is that the feeling they get helping the community and the positive results they see from it, it's a win-win situation all-around."