These students have a (business) plan

At a Boston high school, entrepreneurship education boosts teens' business know-how.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Business savvy: Fenway High School juniors shake hands with judges at the Blue Cross Blue Shield office in Boston during 'The Pitch,' the culmination of an entrepreneurial class.
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Standing before a phalanx of potential investors, three young women make the case for their high-end day care concept. They've written a 37-page business plan, and they confidently whip through a PowerPoint about their mission, budget, and marketing plan.

Then they break into song like only teenagers can – a charming choreographed performance of their jingle.

Welcome to "The Pitch" – a culminating event for juniors at Fenway High School in Boston. In 14 weeks, each team of students has gone from not knowing what a business plan is to creating one and trying to sell it to a panel of professional adults, the hypothetical investors.

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Entrepreneurship education is gaining popularity as a way to motivate students to master everything from math to public speaking. In the era of No Child Left Behind, it's hard for many schools to make room for entrepreneurial classes in their schedules. But groups that promote these classes, particularly in urban settings, are convinced that a curriculum about creating, financing, and owning a business can also nudge up test scores and graduation rates.

At Fenway, a high-performing public school, educators saw the value so clearly that they made the demanding "Ventures" class a requirement. The course carries into senior year with career exploration and an internship. It's one of many ways students here connect with the world beyond high school and practice the skills they'll need there.

Ventures "is about the ability to open doors for yourself in the adult work world," says Rosemary Sedgwick, who piloted the program a decade ago with funding from Adobe Systems and now is Fenway's director of development. "It leaves them with that entrepreneurial spirit that they can go out and make things happen."

Students are more engaged in school, many experts say, when lessons seem relevant and when projects have consequences beyond an assignment that only their teacher will see.

Ventures teacher and director Amy Carrier sets high standards for the business plans. She gets mentors to coach the teams as they conduct customer surveys and call businesses to research their ideas. "This is not the kind of class where a teacher can give a lecture," she says.

For Farah Jeune, creating marketing for the Play Place Palace day care sparked a career interest. She and her teammates took critiques from the judges in stride. One judge noticed that they hadn't budgeted for gasoline as part of their transportation service.

"The level of sophistication was unbelievable," says judge Linda Lanton, "because they targeted a particular market segment – the wealthy." She's the vice president of new ventures at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, which hosted the event at its office, just a baseball's toss away from the school and the famed Fenway Park stadium.

Judges graded everything from the viability of the ideas to students' speaking skills.

Friends at other schools don't have this opportunity, students say. "Yesterday, when I went shopping to get an outfit for this, the lady was impressed that high school students were doing business things, because you usually learn about things like this in college," Farah says.

Blue Cross freed up some employees two mornings a week to mentor. "I've really come to appreciate [the students'] drive and their work ethic," says Tuoyo Louis, the lead mentor at Blue Cross and a Fenway trustee. "I didn't get some of this stuff until I was in business school, so to see it in high school..., it's amazing."

"It's really essential for every student to know the rules of the game of life," Ms. Carrier says.

Sometimes those rules feel uncomfortable. Students complain when first asked to don office-appropriate outfits, for one thing. But Melissa Gonzalez says her main challenge was dealing with "harsh, rude, ignorant people" when contacting car dealers and auto shops while working on an autocustomization plan. She says she enjoyed the task despite the hurdles.

For Steve Mariotti, founder of the National Foundation for Teaching of Entrepreneurship (NFTE), "getting someone to think entrepreneurially ... is a form of mental liberation."

His nonprofit in New York has worked with nearly 200,000 students nationwide, primarily low-income and minority, over the past 20 years. Mr. Mariotti created a curriculum model, similar to Fenway's, so that entrepreneurial education would not be limited to children whose parents own a business.

The reach of such education has grown tenfold since he started, Mariotti estimates. But he and others say there's still a long way to go to make it more widely available.

Early research on NFTE programs found links to increases in students' independent reading, college aspirations, and leadership behavior. The boost to academic and life skills is primarily found among students at a socioeconomic or cultural disadvantage, says Andrew Hahn, a professor and founder of the Center for Youth and Communities at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

In their senior year, Fenway students have to pitch themselves to a workplace for an internship.

Sometimes students are scared heading into the internship, Carrier says, but when they come back after six weeks in a professional environment, "they blossom into these adult versions of themselves, and they're wise.... And they're able to link everything Fenway's given them ... to what's real."

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