Clay County Schools is training a generation of entrepreneurs.

If Grayson, Hanna, Asia, Kaylie, Miriah, Rylan, and Samuel want to bring 2,000 students from Clay County’s six schools to their arts and crafts fair—and the school system charges 70 cents per mile for each 72-seat school bus—how many $10 tables do they have to rent to recoup their costs?

That’s not a textbook word problem. It’s a real-world puzzle the students in Leslie Osburn’s hospitality and tourism class at Clay County High School are trying to solve. The students have also measured the school’s gymnasium to figure out how many tables they can fit, drawn up a budget for the fair, and developed an ad campaign with separate messaging for kids and adults.

They’re getting advice from Osburn, BridgeValley Community and Technical College, and the National Consortium of Entrepreneurial Education (EntreEd for short). But students are the ones making all the decisions.

It’s part of the Clay school system’s countywide effort to be recognized as one of America’s Entrepreneurial Schools (AES), a program by EntreEd that aims to inspire students from kindergarten to 12th grade to start their own businesses. To receive the recognition, schools must demonstrate that every child has received some form of entrepreneurial education. “We’re pretty tough on the idea that it has to be every student,” says EntreEd executive director Gene Coulson. “But we’re pretty loose on how they get there.”

That’s one of the most attractive qualities of the AES program. Schools can participate without hiring a new teacher, shoehorning a new class into their already packed schedules, or buying expensive training or materials. Entrepreneurship education can be easily incorporated into math or reading lessons, classroom projects, or campus-wide programs.

On the Ground Floor

In 2016, EntreEd received a $2.3 million POWER grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to expand its programs in five states—Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The money came with some stipulations. It had to be used for programs in counties on the commission’s list of distressed counties, and also in communities that had been affected by the downturn in the coal industry. Clay County met both criteria—and the local school system welcomed EntreEd with open arms. “This was a way to tap into kids’ creativity and let them see they can be a success, no matter where they live,” Clay County Assistant Superintendent Joan Haynie says. “With our global economy and businesses, you don’t have to be in the middle of a big city to be successful anymore.”

Now each of the county’s schools has an EntreEd teacher leader, who helps incorporate entrepreneurship education into the existing curricula. Each of the four elementary schools are holding market days, where students sell handmade items. Clay Elementary held theirs during February’s parent-teacher conferences, with students outside each classroom hawking their wares. Kindergarteners made “honey bunnies” from crew socks and sold them for $5 apiece, while fourth graders made snowmen from decorated tissue boxes with snowflake print gloves tied on top as hats. Those cost $4 each. “They got to see the whole gamut—what goes into an idea, how you develop that, market it, and sell it,” says Michelle Samples, Clay County Schools’ grant director.

The county’s middle and high school students are receiving their entrepreneurship education as part of their everyday math, science, and language arts lessons. Entrepreneurship is even showing up in art class: “You have students who plan on making a living in the arts, and you have to talk about how you are going to be able to do that,” Samples says.

But, more than anywhere else, entrepreneurial education has come alive in Clay County High School’s career and technical programs. The school already participates in the state education department’s Simulated Workplace program, where vo-tech classes are run like businesses—students have to prepare resumes, apply for specific jobs within the class “company,” punch a timeclock, and undergo regular evaluations with their superiors. Teachers serve not as overlords, but as advisors. The companies are student-run.

But entrepreneurship has added another layer of realism to the simulation because now, instead of being hypothetical companies, the classes are dealing with cold, hard cash.

Finding the Opportunity

Julie Greenlee’s business class sold pumpkin rolls at Thanksgiving and bath bombs, sugar scrubs, and custom laser-engraved ornaments at Christmastime. For Valentine’s Day, the class sold arrangements of chocolate-covered strawberries—students purchased all of the supplies, spent days perfecting the process for decorating the fruit, took orders, stayed after school to assemble everything, and delivered the arrangements. They made around $500.

Kelsey Flinn’s agriculture class has several ventures going. Her freshman students are building a homegrown popcorn business. The class also sells flowers they grow in the school’s greenhouse. “They make thousands off of that,” Osburn says. Students have started a metal sign business, using a CNC plasma cutter obtained with money from a student-written grant proposal. The sign shop recently completed its first job, for the Clay County Business Development Authority. It took a few tries to get everything right, since the customer wanted the sign matte black and students originally painted it glossy. Flinn says that’s just part of learning customer service. The kids made $250.

Trey Corwell’s business class offers business cards, flyers, and banners for local businesses. They have purchased binding equipment and hope to corner the market on sports programs next year.

In addition to the fair her students are setting up, Leslie Osburn’s hospitality and tourism class has hosted a movie during the school day, making around $600. They hosted two separate karaoke events, clearing nearly $2,000 in all.

Osburn’s students have put that money to a variety of uses. Late last year, they threw a special thank-you dinner for all of the school’s teachers. But their favorite thing to do is plan trips. They recently attended a conference at The Greenbrier to learn about marketing. And their trip to the New River Gorge changed the whole trajectory of one of their classmates’ lives.

Asia Summers had no interest in tourism—she signed up to take something else, but that class was full so she got moved into Osburn’s class. Summers is now going to get whatever job she could find, then figure life out from there.

That all changed after a trip the class planned to the New River Gorge, where she saw the impact of the tourism industry on Fayetteville’s economy. “Our county is really poor. And I realized I could make a difference if I wanted to,” she says. Summers, a senior, hadn’t planned to attend college after graduation. But she is now planning to study hospitality and tourism management at Pierpont Community and Technical College in Fairmont.

Gene Coulson of EntreEd says stories like Summers’ are why the America’s Entrepreneurial Schools program was founded. By raising a generation of business-minded thinkers, Coulson says we could change the state’s economy forever. “You’re asking yourself, what are the challenges our community has? And how can I turn that into an opportunity?”

written and photographed by ZACK HAROLD

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