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story.lead_photo.caption A student at North Little Rock High School helps digitize minutes from the city’s old City Council meetings. The city bought the students equipment that would convert VHS tapes to DVDs and allowed students to use a software program that turns DVDs into MP4 files. ( Stephen Simpson)

Students in North Little Rock High School's EAST Initiative program are using modern-day technology and ingenuity to make sure the past is not forgotten.

The EAST Initiative, which stands for Education Accelerated by Service and Technology, is designed to provide students with an opportunity to be a part of service-learning projects that use teamwork and cutting-edge technology.

Over the past few years, the program has created games, apps, structures and more by allowing students to step out of their comfort zones, said Stan Whisnant, facilitator of North Little Rock's East Initiative. He said the non-traditional class has taken students to various places and has even led to paid summer internships for some.

The initiative has been in place for almost 21 years at North Little Rock. Whisnant has served as the program's facilitator for the past eight years but said when it comes to the students' projects he takes a hands-off approach.

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"A facilitator is a fancy word for a teacher, but I don't help them," Whisnant said with a laugh. "They come to me and say I need help with something, and I tell them to figure it out. But they figure it out."

Earlier this year, students in the program put together an essay and video pitch that beat out 3,000 other applicants and earned them a $30,000 grant from Intel and PCM. The application for the grant was mostly done by current graduate Lauren Cavnor and others in the program.

Because of their efforts, Whisnant said, the program is now equipped with top-of-the-line computer towers and personal computer equipment.

"It has been a blessing for the class," Whisnant said of the 164 students in the program. "We have these massive computer programs. The problem was the old computers we had that were 19 to 20 years old couldn't run them. So now we are able to use and actually do things with those programs.

"It's amazing, with the right tools, what you can do."

CITY PROJECTS

Thanks to the grant, students have been working on various city-themed projects, including a detailed diagram of North Little Rock that will eventually be used to create a three-dimensional model of the city. There are also plans to conduct interviews with three living North Little Rock mayors regarding how the city has changed over the years.

The city also approached the program recently about converting old City Council meetings into a digital format. The city bought the students equipment that would convert VHS tapes to DVDs and allowed students to use a software program that turns DVDs into MP4 files.

Jessica Thomas, a 10th-grader at the high school, has single-handedly digitized the meetings.

"They just sent over 260 of them from 1996 until 2006," North Little Rock spokesman Jim Billings said. "We'll be putting them up on YouTube soon. They still have several hundred to go."

Thomas pulled out several boxes full of VHS tapes from the back room of her class Thursday that illustrated the length of the project.

"We got even more in the closet," she said.

A completion date for the project is unknown, but that doesn't bother Thomas.

"It's a long process, but it's kind of fun," she said. "I like seeing the videos on the screen."

For some, the EAST Initiative has become almost something of a birthright that is passed down from sibling to sibling. Anna Cavnor said she was drawn into the program by her sister, Lauren.

"She said, 'You are going to take this class next year,' " said Anna Cavnor, an 11th-grader. "I asked what it was, and she told me she didn't know. I still have a hard time answering what EAST is, because it is so many different things.

"The first time I stepped into an EAST classroom, it opened my eyes to a whole new concept of what kids could learn and what they can experience in high school. That it's not just math classes and P.E."

Anna Cavnor now serves as the chief project manager of the program just like her sister did before her.

"She knows what is going on with all my projects," Whisnant said. "We will discuss projects, ideas, brainstorm thoughts, get students involved figuring out who is doing what."

One of the biggest projects Anna Cavnor has worked on is the Memorial Wall, which has become something of a personal project for her family.

The old high school campus also had a Memorial Wall that carried the names of students who passed away while still in high school. One of those was Jordan Cavnor, who died in 2005 and was the brother of Anna and Lauren.

The nameplates had grown dirty by 2012, and most students had no idea the Memorial Wall was there other than the Cavnors and Lilly Shaw, who cleaned the plaques with toothbrushes. Shaw and Lauren Cavnor wanted to come up with a concept for a new Memorial Wall at the current campus.

"My freshman year, my sister was already working on the project, so I started working on it with her," Anna Cavnor said. "We saw the problem, and we were like, 'OK, how are we going to fix it?' "

FAN WALK

They chose the fan walk -- the pathway where people can walk from one side of the football stadium to the other -- as the spot for the new Memorial Wall because it was a prominent area that students and community members could see. The group then turned to community partner Southern Trophy to make the plaques that would make the wall come to life. The only thing left was figuring out how they were going to pay for the plaques.

Students received a $1,000 grant from the school board after Shaw implored them to help. The Parent Teacher Student Association also provided funding for the centerpiece, which reads "NLRHS Memorial Wall."

The funding paid for the first 20 plaques of the original 26 students memorialized on the wall at the old high school. The next batch of plaques will include the remaining six.

"This is my longest-running project," Whisnant said.

It doesn't appear the Memorial Wall project will be completed anytime soon, and interest in the project hasn't waned.

"We put it on social media, and all heck broke loose," Whisnant said of the response from North Little Rock alumni. "What about? What about? What about? Well, who was that? I don't know that name."

Whisnant said students in the program have decided that the name of any student who passed away between ninth grade and 12th grade and were part of the North Little Rock School District can be placed on the wall if funding can be found for a nameplate. It doesn't matter when they died or what school they attended, just as long as they were in North Little Rock.

Whisnant said the oldest name they've encountered so far was from 1928.

"We have identified multiple students over 60 that were in yearbooks or their classmates have told us about that passed away during their years of high school that weren't put up on the wall," Anna Cavnor said. "We are just trying to remember their legacy ... because we don't want them to be forgotten."

Whisnant said projects like this are what makes the EAST program unique by giving students a chance to take a risk and try something new.

"It's not your ability, it's your desire," he said. "You can be the smartest kid in the world, but if you don't do anything, then this program is worthless to you. But if you want to try, then you can learn from these things."

State Desk on 11/10/2019

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