As we push for learning that is authentic and empowering for our learners, we decided to try something new this year. We decided to set aside some budget money to sponsor some student-led businesses as start-ups. I was curious to see what our learners would do if we gave them the opportunity to add something to the school that we had not done before and then actually let them do it. We put out a simple five-question form that asked about what kind of business it would be when they thought it would be profitable, and what they would do with the money. It was essential to ask them how they felt their business would make the school and our community a better place as well. It created a great opportunity to hear from some future entrepreneurs that are really inspiring.
We got to hear from a group of five and six-year-olds about how they are doing a project to draw more families to move to our city. I had the honor of sitting on their expert panel a few weeks ago with our mayor and other city leaders to answer their questions about why I think West Allis is a great place to be. They are now making a promotional video and will be going public with their work at our local Farmers Market next month. They asked for a button maker to create promotional materials and some podcasting equipment as they are starting a learner-led podcast (Thanks- Award Winning Culture for an excellent idea!). The learners will be going out into our community to interview people and document their thinking and insights via their new podcast. This was the feedback from the teacher when I shared that we would be funding their project, “Our room was full of excitement and pride when we told them the good news. Thank you so much for taking the time to hear their ideas and for funding this project! There are so many exciting opportunities ahead for them!” That’s exactly how we want all learners and teachers to feel about school.
Another elementary group had researched hunger, how it impacts the brain, and what the nutritional requirements are for schools. They proposed a snack store with healthy snacks to get learners through their afternoon hunger and be more productive. Their proposal was very professional and entirely done by the learners. They had dressed up and offered samples of all the snacks for the panel. You could see the pride in their work and the sense of community that had been built in their classroom as they worked together to answer all the questions we asked. That sense of belonging and community really came through when we asked them what they would do with any profits. Each learner talked about wanting to give to charities or support others in school and out who are struggling. The learners were from varied friend groups and able to see past that to want to create a collective impact on our community. Again, that is exactly how we want all learners to feel about school.
Two young men from another elementary had a great idea to add a more exciting option to their Friday activities that is both educational and fun. They created an arcade on a cart that others can use if their name is called in a drawing. They had quite the sales pitch and are planning to take their proposal to a major supplier for more units once they have some promotional videos from learners using the cart. It was a creative idea that was driven by one learner who had not always felt successful in school. He had challenges connecting with his classmates and his learning until he got the opportunity to design a project of his choosing to demonstrate his learning. It gave him a new outlook on his learning, and I can confidently say he is able to communicate, research, problem-solve, and collaborate with others based on what he showed us in a fifteen-minute pitch. Being able to make his idea a reality through our student-led businesses means he will continue to feel empowered at school.
Our high school and adult learners want to start a cafe, a t-shirt business, an outlet for students to express their feelings through art, a recycled t-shirt business, a photography studio that offers discount senior pictures for those who can’t otherwise afford them, and a greeting card company. One that really impressed me was a team of learners from our marketing class and our current student-led coffee shop run primarily by our learners with disabilities. They have been working on a revamp of the school book store together and wanted an investment to make it better by adding a satellite location for the coffee shop to it. The two teachers and an educational assistant had obviously collaborated on how to make the experience inclusive for all learners in a purposeful way that closes opportunity gaps. The learners worked together and presented a cohesive picture of what they wanted for their business. We continually reflect on our inclusive practices for students with disabilities as a district team. This was an exciting glimpse into what’s possible for all learners when the work is authentic, project-based, goes public, and the inclusionary practice becomes seamless and invisible in the work. When I asked this group why student-led businesses are important, all four learners gave almost the exact same response. They all said that they need to have real experiences in school so that they feel ready for life outside of school. The expectation for all these learners in this project will be the same, the pathway and the supports may just look different. ALL learners will get the opportunity to feel ready for whatever comes next for them.
The sense of empowerment that every learner we spoke to demonstrated was remarkable. When we ask our learners to try with the right supports, they do, and they want to do more. As Kid President once said, “What will you create that makes the world awesome?” We have a bunch of learners who are about to see what they can create together. I am sure it will be awesome!