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Who's Minding the Store? A Guide for Educators Working with School-Based Enterprises: Activities and Strategies for Creating and Operating Innovative and Productive Learning Experiences (MDS-1254)

R. Larson


Objectives and Audience

This guide is intended for use by educators who are working with school-based enterprises or contemplating the establishment of an SBE in their school. It seeks to help schools, students, and teachers develop enterprises that

The guide provides tools and strategies that should help teachers answer two essential questions:

  1. How can we establish and operate a school-based enterprise (SBE) which provides a context for students to learn a range of academic and career-oriented skills?
  2. How can we provide a meaningful experience for students in an SBE that is already up and running?

One strategy recommended for creating and operating SBEs that meet these objectives is the utilization of an entrepreneurial approach. Broadly defined, entrepreneurship is the ability to "see and seize opportunities." Entrepreneurial preparation contributes both to the success of the enterprise and the quality of the learning experience for students.

This entrepreneurial preparation is necessary for educators as well as for students. Section I of the guide suggests steps that educators can take to help their enterprise-an SBE integrated with the school's curriculum-succeed within the school setting.

Section II describes ways to incorporate planning into setting up an SBE. The business planning process guides students and teachers through the research and investigation needed to create a viable business which meets a need in the school or surrounding community. The business plan also serves as a "road map" for an enterprise, so that those running it can check-and learn from-their progress. Finally, the business plan, which is essentially a major research project integrating writing, mathematics, social studies, and many critical thinking and life skills, is one important way to ensure that the SBE provides a learning laboratory and not just another job for students.

Keeping the SBE experience fresh for students who are not involved in the initial start-up process is a second major challenge for SBEs. Section III offers a number of strategies that can build student ownership in ongoing SBEs. These approaches are consistent with the business and product "life cycle," which dictates the need for businesses to innovate continually in order to remain successful. Two prominent ideas in Section III are as follows:

How This Guide Came About

In their 1994 book, School-Based Enterprise: Productive Learning in American High Schools, David Stern, James Stone III, Charles Hopkins, Martin McMillion, and Robert Crain detail the proliferation of SBEs in American public high schools. They cite a 1992 national survey of high schools which determined that "18.6% of public secondary schools were sponsoring at least one SBE, defined in the survey as 'a class-related activity that engages students in producing goods or services for sale or use to people other than the participating students themselves.'" (p. 5).

In addition, SBEs were listed prominently in the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 as a recommended way of providing work-based experiences. Many states have supported the creation of SBEs (Maine and Connecticut are two examples) in their effort to develop STW systems in communities lacking large employers capable of providing work-based learning opportunities.

Yet, despite the growing support for SBEs as a worthwhile strategy for providing hands-on learning through work within the school setting, teachers and schools interested in establishing SBEs have few resources at their disposal to guide them. Creating an enterprise that is both economically viable and truly educational is challenging work. This is particularly true when the individual responsible for setting up and supervising the enterprise is a teacher, and probably one with a full teaching load and other responsibilities.

In an effort to make this task more manageable-and to help teachers avoid "reinventing the wheel," the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE) contracted with REAL Enterprises (REAL), a national nonprofit organization, to create a school-based enterprise curriculum module. NCRVE contracted with REAL (REAL is an acronym for Rural Entrepreneurship through Action Learning) because of its experience working with SBEs and helping schools-predominantly rural schools-develop entrepreneurial programs that utilize experiential learning.


This guide represents an effort to capture the best thinking of a few educators engaged in a continuous process of experimentation with SBEs. Site visits to SBEs based in Oakland Unified School District Academies were conducted in November 1997. At the same time, the author participated in a meeting designed to help teachers who are implementing SBEs in Oakland schools use the business planning process; he also participated in a discussion organized by Deborah McKoy of NCRVE which included Oakland SBE practitioners and representatives from Food from the 'Hood in Los Angeles.

In-depth interviews were conducted with two educators working with SBEs-Ann Smith of Sno-Isle Skills Center in Everett, Washington, and Aleyne Larner of Food from the 'Hood. This guide draws extensively on Smith's experience with a range of SBEs at Sno-Isle; in fact, Sno-Isle's Business and Management program serves as a case study or laboratory site for the guide's approaches in Section III. Food from the 'Hood is also featured in Section III as an example of a site with successful experience in recruiting and retaining students.

Elements appearing in the guide were field-tested with instructors at REAL Enterprises Institutes during the summer of 1998. In addition, REAL's experience working with SBEs for more than a decade and its approaches to experiential teaching and learning form the basis for the strategies outlined in Section II. The activities and teaching methods which appear in Tools 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 11 are drawn from the REAL Entrepreneurship Curriculum Guide.

REAL's Experience with School-Based Enterprises

When it began in the mid-1980s in Georgia and North Carolina, REAL Enterprises' initial strategy for fostering student entrepreneurship was to help high school students and teachers create "school-incubated enterprises" intended to be started in schools and then "spun off" to become a part of the local economy. They included restaurants, a feeder pig business, screen printing operations, a day care center, a shoe store, and a fabric store. REAL learned some important lessons from this experience.

These enterprises typically were researched, planned, and operated by a whole class of students. More often than not, however, the task of managing the enterprise eventually fell to an adult-either a teacher or an adult manager hired specifically for the purpose of managing the business. It was too complicated and difficult for students with full course loads and limited work experience to find the time and support needed to manage the entire business.

As a result, REAL found that the individuals most likely to have an entrepreneurial experience in an SBE were the adults. At best, students were highly involved employees or assistant managers who learned on the job from some very patient and dedicated adults. Too often, the students' experiences were little different from the kind they would have in a job in a "regular" business; they thought like employees, not owners or entrepreneurs.

In addition to being less entrepreneurial, the students' experiences were usually not as educational as the adults.' Because they were more likely to be making and living with decisions, the adults did the learning and underwent the growth associated with this process.

REAL found that the degree to which a student's experience in an SBE is entrepreneurial and educational also depends a great deal on when that student is involved in the process. Those students who help plan and start an enterprise tend to have the most worthwhile experiences. Students who "cycle into" the enterprise later, once it is up and running, usually do not learn as much or feel as engaged in the enterprise.

One reason for this seems to be that the creators of an enterprise have a higher level of ownership and commitment than those who work there once it is established. This is a natural outcome of being involved in what is often a highly visible undertaking with real consequences. Students expressed sentiments which could be paraphrased as follows: If we don't set the business up right, it's going to fail, and the school will have wasted money and everyone (our parents, the school board, and the local paper) will know.

In REAL's experience, there seems to be greater incentive to learn when the learning matters to an audience beyond one's teacher and the immediate classroom.

The other lesson REAL learned was that operating a successful business in affiliation with a school or class is a task that taxes even the most energetic, committed, and enthusiastic teacher. At heart, school-based or student-run enterprises-by virtue of their affiliation with a school-should be integrally linked to learning that is going on in the school. The link or conduit for this integration needs to be the teacher working with the SBE.

Yet, too often, the demands of keeping the business running detract from its ability to serve the school as a learning opportunity. This guide is an effort to help teachers manage the dual demands of keeping the business running and drawing the maximum learning from its operations.

Key Assumptions

Three fundamental assumptions underlie this approach to making SBEs innovative and productive in terms of learning and revenues alike. The first relates to the American economy and the kind of preparation high school graduates need to be "winners" in that economy, the second to teaching and learning, and the third to the unique structural nature of SBEs.

Assumption #1: Entrepreneurship Is Important for Learning and for Success in Life and Work

In the preface to School-Based Enterprise (Stern et al., 1994), the authors argue that "School-Based Enterprise (SBE) should be considered a possible means to accomplish the two main missions of American high schools: preparing students for work and for further education" (p. xi). If this is to be true, then SBEs must offer opportunities for students to work in ways that are consistent with the nature of work in American workplaces, which are becoming increasingly entrepreneurial. Consider these indicators:

These trends in the American economy all but ensure that the average high school graduate will spend a significant portion of his or her work life either working as, or for, an entrepreneur or a business with fewer than 20 employees.

Furthermore, entrepreneurial thinking-the ability to "see and seize opportunities"-is valuable in enterprises of all sizes. Large employers increasingly are looking for "intrapreneurial" employees, those capable of seeing and seizing opportunities within the company, department, division, or work team. According to Mr. Edgar Murphy, Manager of Community Relations for Nortel, the Fortune 500 telecommunications equipment manufacturer, The days of getting a lifetime career and a job in a company are gone. People need to be entrepreneurial about their careers, and they need to pay attention to changes in the marketplace and changes in the needs of their employer.

If schools are to realize their educational goals and serve their students and communities, fostering entrepreneurial thinking and acting is essential. The good news is that SBEs are uniquely positioned to be an effective educational tool for entrepreneurship education. They are, after all, usually small and young enterprises; even better, by definition they are connected to a learning environment. The key is to view SBEs not as a static presence in the school, but to consider them laboratories for creative, entrepreneurial activity.

Assumption #2: Experience Is Critical, But It Is Not Enough by Itself

There is a commonly held belief that "experience is the best teacher." As an organization committed to the use of experiential education, REAL agrees that experience is a necessary component of learning, but that experience alone is not sufficient for learning to occur. As John Dewey (1938) says in Experience and Education, "The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative" (p. 25).

Take the experience of learning to drive a car. If a young man gets behind the wheel of a car for the first time, starts driving, and ends up hitting a tree, we can say for certain that he has had an experience, probably one that will leave a strong impression! But, has he learned how to drive a car?

If, on the other hand, he goes out driving for the first time with a driver's education teacher, not only will he experience plenty, but he should learn how to drive a car. Even if he ends up hitting the same tree, he is still likely to learn because there is a facilitator of his learning along for the ride, someone who can help him reflect on and apply the lessons of his experience.

What does this have to do with SBEs? Enterprises, like cars, can stay on the road or can veer off course and crash. The experience of working in one does not necessarily mean that learning is occurring, but even if an enterprise fails (hits the proverbial tree!), much learning can occur if there is a process in place to glean the lessons from the experience. In short, "hands-on" needs to be coupled with "minds-on" if learning is to occur.

The educator's role in this process is critical. We do not usually see a driver's education teacher behind the wheel of a car full of students. Rather, one of the learners is behind the wheel, experiencing the act of driving first-hand. The educator is a co-driver who sits next to the learner. (Note that the driver's education teacher does have a brake in case things get out of hand.)

Similarly, the educator working with an SBE needs to be "riding alongside" students, coaching and facilitating their work and their learning, so that the experience is as educational and valuable as possible. If the teacher "drives" the business, the students are left watching. There is no doubt that learning can occur by watching; however, students will learn far more if they do real work with real consequences, reflect on their experience, and apply it.

One reason more learning occurs through direct experience may be that students tend to work harder if their work counts for more than "just a grade." Oakland High School teacher Jackie Begrin reports on how much harder students in the SBE ACORA (A Coalition of Raw Artists) work to develop their designs when there is the possibility of selling their work to the public.

The experiential learning cycle in Figure 1 captures this philosophy of learning. It places experiences in a context that includes reflection, expansion, and application of the learning resulting from these steps. The activities suggested for use in this module are designed for use in this cycle. Above all, SBEs need to strive to provide students with quality experiences. In Dewey's (1938) words,

It is not enough to insist upon the necessity of experience nor even of activity in experience. Everything depends upon the quality of the experience which is had. The quality of any experience has two aspects. There is an immediate aspect of agreeableness or disagreeableness, and there is its influence upon later experiences. (p. 27)

Assumption #3: SBEs Can, and Should, Model Socially Responsible Entrepreneurship

American schools do more than just prepare young people to enter the workforce. They also have a responsibility and an opportunity to reinforce the values of community and accountability that are essential to the effective functioning of a democratic society. As part of the school, SBEs can and should model enterprises which operate as good corporate citizens.

Mention the word "entrepreneur" and many Americans will visualize someone who is self-centered, opportunistic, and greedy. Beyond that impression, entrepreneurs include individuals who establish nonprofit organizations to address pressing social needs, as well as for-profit entrepreneurs who operate their enterprises in a socially responsible manner.

The challenge for SBEs is to operate sustainably from an economic perspective while contributing to the greater good. Using an SBE's profits for scholarships to further the education of its employees is one concrete, and widely practiced, strategy to support a school's mission of preparing students for further education. But SBEs can do more. They can be operated sustainably from a social and environmental perspective, too.

What might this look like? An SBE serving food might provide its customers with healthy fare and educate them about the need for good nutrition, while minimizing its environmental impact. An SBE based in the automotive shop of a school that provides oil changes could make sure that the oil is recycled and educate its customers about the environmental advantages of keeping their cars in tune.

Food from the 'Hood (FFH) at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles is one excellent example of an SBE that blends good business with good citizenship. Created as a positive response to the riots in South Central Los Angeles in 1992, FFH began as a garden at the high school where students grew organic produce for sale to local residents. This enterprise met an important community need, since many grocery stores had been destroyed in the riots. The SBE has evolved over time. Today, students continue to maintain a garden and in addition create recipes for salad dressings which are produced by a local salad dressing bottler. Students learn horticulture and nutrition along with how to operate a successful business. Profits from the business are used to provide scholarships for its student-owners.

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