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Teaching kids to forge their own paths
Kristie Olson, who teaches an entrepreneurship class at Madison High School, talks with Tyler Wiebe, a senior at Madison and a member of the Future Business Leaders of America. Photo by Becky Froehlich

Teaching kids to forge their own paths

Kristie Olson, who teaches an entrepreneurship class at Madison High School, talks with Tyler Wiebe, a senior at Madison and a member of the Future Business Leaders of America. Photo by Becky Froehlich


Entrepreneurship education can help young people build up their communities

Do the young people in your community want to live and work there someday, when they are ready to settle down?
Many adults in rural communities think they know—but they might be surprised at the answer if they stop to ask the young people in question, according to Craig Schroeder, senior associate with the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship at the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI).

Recently, the center asked about 25,000 middle and high school students from rural places across the nation what they thought about their hometowns.

When they were asked whether they expected to live in their hometowns someday, they gave a half-hearted response. But when those same students were asked if they’d live there if good career opportunities were available, more than half answered “yes.”

The seven-year survey shows that the problem is not “dull” hometowns—it’s the perceived lack of career options there.

And, indeed, the variety of jobs in the rural Dakotas (if not the number—some jobs are going unfilled, as Dakotafire reported in August) can be lacking. Young people who don’t see their desired career represented in the jobs available often assume they have to leave to pursue their dreams.

A small but growing number of rural schools are trying to present young people with another option: They can create their own opportunities as entrepreneurs. That provides rewards for the communities as well as the young people, according to Schroeder.

“Rural places that tie their economic development resources to entrepreneurship education can help these young people pursue their dreams and, in turn, revitalize, grow and diversify their own local economies,” Schroeder wrote in a recent article for The Daily Yonder.

In the past decade, 18 schools in South Dakota and 45 in North Dakota have started offering entrepreneurship classes that teach skills such as how to evaluate business ideas and opportunities in their communities, how to finance a venture, and how to market a service or product.

“I try to go through all the basic concepts that a young entrepreneur would need to know,” said Kristie Olson, who teaches entrepreneurship at Madison High School.

The final result is a business plan that showcases all the strategic thinking that goes into starting a business, Olson explained—thinking that the students can put into practice later.

“I just talked to a former student this weekend and he completed a business plan in the past month to try to get financing to start an outdoor guide business,” Olson said. “He said he actually remembered a lot from class and the business plan was somewhat easier to write (because of taking the class).”

In Howard, the entrepreneurship class incorporates a computer simulation.

“As the students go through these lessons, they are put in the position of a convenience store owner, having to make all the decisions on all aspects of their store,” explained David Carmon, who teaches the class. “As they become more successful and profitable making the right decisions, they can move on to new levels, which present additional opportunities and challenges.”

Carmon said the simulation can quickly give students feedback on whether their business decisions are profitable (or point out clearly that they are not), and which strategies in pricing, staffing, marketing and so on are better than others.


Creating a New Path

The best of these classes are not only about teaching skills but also about changing a mindset, according to Schroeder.¶

“You’ve got to start young to help them (students) think differently about what their options are,” Schroeder said in a phone interview. “(Currently) they are not getting input from their adults in their community about what is possible.”

When students see that their rural communities may have an opportunity for someone with the right skills, both entrepreneurial and otherwise, the students sometimes adjust their post-high school plans accordingly. Schroeder gave the example of a young woman he met who wanted to run a newspaper. She went to college to get a journalism degree, then came home and purchased her local paper.

This example shows one key aspect to successful entrepreneurship education classes: They are connected to the community beyond the school, helping the students form relationships with business and community leaders, and also to understand the needs and aspirations of the community. “You can’t just put a class in place and run it and not connect it with anything,” Schroeder said. “It has to be tied in with everything you want to do.”

Even without the goal of drawing young people back to their communities, entrepreneurship classes are still a good idea for schools, Schroeder said. Many of them are focused on hands-on learning, and since some students learn better through hands-on projects than textbook-based lessons, it can give those students a way to succeed.

That’s better for the kids, the schools, and the community, Schroeder said.

He also recognizes that many students will leave after high school to pursue educational opportunities or work experience elsewhere, which is why he prefers the term “youth attraction” to “youth retention.” The goal is making the community an attractive place to settle—some of which is the job of the community, and some of which is helping young people see its opportunities.


Getting a Class in Place

Schroeder has traveled across the country giving presentations and training about the Home Town Competitiveness framework for communities, which includes the implementation of entrepreneurship education. He said communities have used different approaches to get entrepreneurship programs going: Sometimes a group of students will approach the administration about wanting to gain these skills, or the initiative can come from a community development group that wants to connect with the school. Entrepreneurship education doesn’t have to take place in school, either—4-H, FBLA and other youth development organizations have provided these lessons.

Starting a high school entrepreneurship class can run into several barriers, such as a lack of time in the schedule, a qualified teacher, or adequate funding. Solving these problems is easier when all the resources of the community are considered, Schroeder said. For example, if a teacher is not from the community in which he or she teaches and therefore doesn’t have a clear idea of what opportunities might be available in that community, a local economic development director could provide some parts of the instruction or connect with business leaders who could share their skills.

“Some of these barriers, if we just think differently about how we support the school, we can overcome fairly directly,” Schroeder said, and in doing so the problem actually becomes a benefit.

One problem Schroeder has observed is that adults may not think the ideas that young people come up with can work in their community, and to keep the kids from failing, they give the subtle message that they shouldn’t try.

But even if the plans do fail, not letting kids try denies them a valuable learning opportunity, Schroeder said: “We all learn the most from our failures.”

And if they succeed, the young entrepreneurs and their communities will all reap the rewards.

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