Changing Young Lives With the ABC's of Business
Keep reading, and you'll see the connection with NCLB. NCLB destroys every curriculum innovation in its path.
By Elizabeth Olson
STEVE MARIOTTI was leading a pleasant life in New York, running a successful import-export business, when he was mugged in September 1981 on the Lower East Side by a group of teenage boys.
Disappointed by the $10 Mr. Mariotti had in his wallet, the boys slapped and knocked him around, leaving him feeling fearful.
The experience, he added, "got me interested in figuring out why they would act that way and for so little money." After learning that a large percentage of minority students nationally never graduate from high school, he decided to switch careers to see if he could help in some way. He sold his business, went back to school to get his teaching credentials and began working in a public high school in the South Bronx.
He found that the students were bored and often disrespectful. But he noticed that when he spoke about his experience running a business, many of them listened.
Intrigued, Mr. Mariotti wondered if the skills he had learned as an entrepreneur might interest the students, teach them important skills like math and give them a reason not to drop out of high school.
He put together a course on basic business concepts — like writing a business letter, opening a bank account, buying goods in quantity and drawing up a marketing plan.
In June 1988, he left his teaching job, and founded the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship to help high schools teach business skills to poor minority adolescents. At first, it was slow going even to find financing, but during the 90's, Mr. Mariotti's foundation — based in New York City and known by its abbreviated name, NFTE, as in "nifty" — began to introduce its curriculum to high schools nationwide. As of this year, its classes are being taught in more than 300 high schools, most in lower-income districts, in 45 states. One-third of the funding for the program, which enrolled 28,000 students this academic year, comes from the Goldman Sachs Foundation.
Mary M. Styner, a teacher at San Leandro High School, near Oakland, Calif., has taught NFTE's course for five of the 10 years it has been offered at her school. It is part of the school's Academy for Business and Finance, a business program.
"These kids come in when they are sophomores and they know nothing about business," Mrs. Styner said. "Then they start getting some products in their hands, they start a business and they start getting some money. Then they're hooked."
She added, "They begin to see that they need the academic skills, like reading and math, to be successful." The students also learn skills like writing a résumé and a cover letter, preparing a presentation and giving it before a group, creating a business plan and devising a marketing plan.
The academy has 50 slots and twice as many students, who are representative of the area's African-American, Hispanic, Caucasian and Asian populations, apply for them. By junior year, Mrs. Styner said, "few of those participating drop out of school."
A 2002 study of the NFTE program by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that students taking the course had a 32 percent higher interest in attending college than their peers who did not take it. After taking the course, the study said, students' interest in getting a job that required a higher level of education rose 44 percent. Even though Tony Renesca, a business teacher at the Booker T. Washington Senior High School in Miami, began teaching the course just a year ago, he said it had caught on. He especially liked teaching entrepreneurial skills, he said, because he could draw on his previous experience as a manager of a fast-food restaurant.
Like others teaching NFTE classes, Mr. Renesca attended a four-day course the foundation gives for teachers. So far, 3,700 teachers have been certified by NFTE, and more than 120,000 students have taken a class or attended entrepreneurship camps run by the foundation.
Mr. Renesca organizes an annual expo to give students a chance to show their parents, classmates and teachers their businesses, which have included a bakery and a T-shirt design company. Students often use the Internet to research products that interest them, he said. Once they decide the area they would like to pursue, NFTE can make money available for students to buy the product in quantity at a wholesale store. Then the student must learn how to budget, how much to charge for each item to turn a profit and how to calculate overall costs.
The course has made "my students more self-reliant and confident about their skills," Mr. Renesca said. One student, Thania Potosme, 15, started a greeting-card business. Born in Nicaragua, Ms. Potosme said that operating a business helped her learn English. "You have to know your grammar if you are going to be putting words on cards," she said. It also taught her to honor commitments. "When you have a project, you have to be responsible," she said.
While NFTE is aimed at low-income high schools, which typically have a high dropout rate, it is also in school districts where the income levels are more diversified.
In 2002, Jeannie Bunce, who spent 22 years in marketing, began teaching a NFTE class at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, Conn., which has a student body with a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. The course's popularity has grown steadily, resulting in four courses to accommodate the more than 120 students who enrolled.
"I teach them that whether you are the C.E.O. of I.B.M. or not, you have to make decisions about what you buy," Mrs. Bunce said. She said that NFTE financed trips to one of New York City's wholesale districts to help students understand the mechanics of pricing items they bought for resale.
"It helps to have a real-life example," she said. "It builds their self-confidence, and lets them know that there are alternatives out there to college or the military."
Beyond financing, the biggest barrier that NFTE has encountered are the school requirements under the No Child Left Behind law, said J. David Nelson, the foundation's chief operating officer who retired from I.B.M. Schools are finding that there is little time for classes beyond science and math.
"We have a shelf space problem," Mr. Nelson said, "because there is so much focus on test scores starting in the ninth grade. That means there is no room sometimes for teaching entrepreneur skills."
Still, NFTE is pressing on, Mr. Mariotti said, because entrepreneurial skills "teach kids, even from the most dysfunctional families where they feel like failures, that they can build a life."
New York Times
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