School of Entrepreneurship: A running start

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Entrepreneurship school

photo by John Booz

Entrepreneurship school

South Shore’s entrepreneurship school had a couple advantages that gave it a running start.

For one, Principal Bill Gerstein is a former community activist and businessman. After teaching high school in the 1970’s, he ran a family-owned grocery store in Hyde Park. When he returned to education in 2000, he brought along a wealth of business contacts that made it easy to line up internships for students.

Another leg up for the school was the extra time it had to create an academic plan, recruit students and hire a faculty. Gerstein began working with community groups on a small schools concept two years ago while he was an assistant principal at South Shore.

In the fall of 2001, Gerstein launched a prototype of the program based in South Shore’s south building with 130 freshmen and 6 teachers. Gerstein says the school did well despite obstacles such as a lack of autonomy and not having separate space. “We couldn’t create our own school culture because we were in the middle of the general school population,” he says.

At the same time, he applied to the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative for a grant to get an autonomous entrepreneurship school off the ground.

Once his proposal was accepted, Gerstein and his teachers got to work recruiting staff, planning the curriculum and lining up business and community groups to teach students about entrepreneurship and starting a business.

When the school opened in dedicated space last September, it had grown to 250 students—110 freshmen and 140 sophomores, most of whom had been enrolled in the pilot program. Thirteen of the entrepreneurship school’s 16 teachers were hired from South Shore. Also on staff are a clerk and a counselor, whose salaries are paid by CPS, and a full-time social worker, whose position is supported by the Gates grant.

Academic classes are held four days a week. On the fifth day, Wednesdays, freshmen attend off-site internships—at hospitals or local newspapers, for instance—and sophomores remain at the school to work with community and educational groups to learn what it takes to start a business of their own. Next year, they will be required to write a business plan.

One sophomore group is working with the Illinois Institute for Entrepreneurship Education to develop a plan for a shop that would sell school supplies at South Shore. Another group is working with former professional basketball player Stephen Bardo and television producer Jeff McCarter to make a documentary film on sports careers and plan a neighborhood sports festival.

Sophomore Kenneth Triplett, who as a freshman was enrolled in South Shore’s general high, says he prefers the small school. “Students aren’t hanging out in the hall and you can’t cut class. You can get a tutor one-on-one when you need one.”

McCarter and Bardo supply the video equipment and are paid only $5,000 for the yearlong course. “Both of us are doing this in an under-funded way because we love this work,” explains McCarter, who’s president of Free Spirit Media, a nonprofit educational television company. “We have relatively young organizations, and we want to build relationships.” Next year, he concedes, the entrepreneurship school will need to raise more money to keep the program.

McCarter says his students show up regularly for class and are engaged in the project. “They’re positive and easy to work with,” he says.

The school is using $50,000 of its Gates grant to support the Wednesday program, dividing it among 10 organizations. (Another $30,000 was earmarked to outfit a computer lab.) While students are at their internships, teachers plan lessons and discuss student performance.

Not all Wednesday internships are as successful as McCarter’s. At a weekly staff meeting last December, teachers complained that some students refused to go to off-site internships and intentionally missed the bus. The teachers agree to talk to those students and make it clear that internships are mandatory and that they will receive grades for them.

And one organization that worked with sophomores was unable to manage its students. The group did not return for second semester. Instead, those students have been dispatched to a neighborhood elementary school to work as tutors.

Despite the problems, several of the school’s teachers say they’re making progress. “Student behavior is better, attendance has improved, the failure rate is down,” says economics teacher Janice Jackson.

Attendance was a respectable 89 percent during first semester; it was 83 percent for South Shore’s general population and 87 percent for the arts school. The failure rate at the entrepreneurship school is lower than South Shore overall, but it’s still high: 50 percent of all students failed one or more first-semester courses.

Students who are failing can get immediate attention in the small school setting, says special education teacher Linda Stone. Recently, eight teachers met with a student and her parents to discuss her disinterest in class. “We’ve done that with several students and it seems to motivate them,” says Stone.