Few things encourage a sophomore to skip recess to resume homework. But the excitement around a classroom-run business can do just that, especially when it comes to creating candles out of crayons and selling them in the local community.
It’s just one of the companies Real World Scholars has helped create schools across the country, empowering teachers to spark the entrepreneurial energy of their students, whether they’re elementary school students building birdhouses or high school students welding furniture. The nonprofit organization offers logistical and instructional toolkits that give teachers a framework for running and sustaining a classroom business.
“I think student engagement and entrepreneurship development have such big implications for everything else,” says Elyse Burden, co-founder and executive director. “When students want to come to class, it’s much easier to teach them math. We are seeing an improvement in classroom culture, with impacts on learning, and workforce skills are being developed. »
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Since its launch in 2015, Real World Scholars has reached more than 50,000 K-12 students with approximately 600 student-run businesses in 34 states. Most sell to the local community, with students learning the art of pricing and marketing along the way. Collectively, the children have earned nearly $400,000, much of which supports local nonprofit organizations or is reinvested into the business. Some classes can fetch hundreds of dollars; others, thousands.
Each company supported by the program is led by a teacher. Some teachers join in the effort to give more direction to an already-nascent idea, while others use it to get students excited about projects that incorporate a range of skills. Originally, Burden had no intention of creating a curriculum, but teachers appreciated having a basic toolkit to guide students in identifying goals, learning the basics of business and how to proceed through the next steps. Teachers can follow the program — or not.
Once started, Burden says, successful classes break away from the curriculum and let the unpredictable nature of entrepreneurship take its course, with motivated students helping to lead. “The experience explodes from there,” she says. “Students connect outside of school and parents can get involved. It gives us an amazing opportunity to learn in a real-world based community.
The concept began in 2014, with Burden and co-founder John Cahalin looking to create a way to promote entrepreneurship in mainstream classrooms. “The new legislation talked about 21st century skills, with a lot of emphasis on soft skills, but teachers had no direction or support,” Burden said. “They were excited, but there was no mechanism.”
The first attempt to embrace that excitement, a press release offering half a million dollars to teachers wanting to run a business outside the classroom, met with no takers — and questions about whether it’s was a scam. Burden says they realized managing money in the classroom could be a “terrifying” proposition. Real World Scholars needed to provide infrastructure just to help give money.
From there they built a platform. It was launched in the San Diego area with a chemistry class making and selling soap. The first year, they grew from 10 classes to 40. The following year, over 200 classes had participated. Today’s list of alumni includes a third-grade class in San Diego who built a “wellness box” that acts as a care package, complete with chocolate, candles and more; a Wyoming carpentry and metalworking class creating art and furniture; and a Pennsylvania high school that makes jewelry and flower arrangements.
Aaron Grable, media arts teacher and head of the vocational and technical education department at El Camino High School in Oceanside, Calif., has been on board from the start and says working with Real World Scholars provides the final link. channel for its graphics and website. design courses that double as businesses.
“Students don’t come to my class expecting another hour-a-day, five-day-a-week class where they have to memorize things and take tests,” he says. “They are alive and engaged, not only while they are in my class, but also after and before class and on weekends. They are constantly trying to find new and exciting ways to make our business bigger and more productive. »
As the school year progresses, Grable says, her role becomes more managerial, with the students managing the class and the business. “They anticipate and prevent problems, they manage their time and their customers, and they figure out where the money goes once they’ve earned it,” he says. “They created the class website, the class logo, the prices we charge, the services we provide, our client list, all of our documents in the process by which we get and keep clients.”
Whether it’s a well-functioning high school class, like Grable’s, or a novice class with a teacher new to the concept, Burden says Real World Scholars aims to take fear out of the entrepreneurial process.
Originally, Real World Scholars helped match classrooms with grants (Harbor Freight Tools is the largest sponsor, although a variety of commercial and private foundations participate, particularly to generate regional funding). But as more teachers became interested in the program, demand outstripped grant funding. When the pandemic hit, Real World Scholars revamped its dashboard to create a more digital-friendly environment. The pandemic has reduced donations, so it has created a licensing model that allows classrooms to pay for the service rather than wait for contributions.
Grable says he loves watching students grow in different fields and working together to help each other and build on the strengths of his classmates in a class that’s not just about learning how to design websites. “It teaches them social and civic awareness,” he says, “effective and persuasive writing, personal conduct, professional behavior, math and finance, and something they don’t get in a textbook: self-confidence and pride.”