Published Online: February 19, 1997

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Web Lets Schools Put New Spin on Student Businesses

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Rochester Hills, Mich.

A few dozen high school students in suburban Michigan are building their own little corner of Madison Avenue in cyberspace.

They are learning the advertising trade, as well as computer skills, by creating sites for Pontiac-area businesses on the Internet's World Wide Web.

Computer-keen teenagers elsewhere might moonlight as Web designers, too, but the class at Adams High School here has novices as well as whiz kids. They don't get paid, but they learn about the latest multimedia tools and the demands of running what amounts to a small advertising agency, teacher Ceil Jensen said recently.

Ms. Jensen wrote the curriculum for the class, dubbed the WebMaster School, and applied for $89,000 in donations and grants needed to launch it last fall. The largest sum, $50,000, was from the state school-to-work program, which supports projects that showcase how schools can collaborate with businesses to prepare students for the workplace.

Offering Web-related services is a new wrinkle in the well-established idea of school-based enterprises, said David S. Stern, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley.

Twenty percent of secondary schools have such enterprises, said Mr. Stern, who wrote a 1994 book on the subject. He noted that student-run businesses received a legislative endorsement in the 1994 federal school-to-work law and that schools have begun to diversify beyond the auto shops, house construction, and restaurants that were their stock in trade.

At least two other school districts--Oakland, Calif., and Union City, N.J.--are setting up Web-services enterprises. Some educators say the Web--the graphics-based portion of the global Internet computer network--has appeal because it is a trendy, cost-effective form of publishing and involves skills that are increasingly useful in classrooms and many workplaces.

Ms. Jensen used her grant money to buy Web-related software and add a dozen multimedia computers to some older machines--now all arranged on the periphery of the classroom. The room mimics a business setting, with a conference table for client meetings separated from the main classroom area by a low wall.

Students made business cards with a laser printer, and they wear ties and dresses when clients come calling--though most of the teenagers change back into their oversize flannel shirts and jeans immediately after the meetings, Ms. Jensen said.

Getting Started

Ms. Jensen, a social studies teacher for more than 20 years, has pioneered two other technology-intensive programs at the school, Principal Caye Randolph said.

But getting the Web course started has been her most difficult challenge. "It took everything I had in 25 years of teaching to deliver on the [school-to-work] grant. From A to Z, it was on my shoulders," Ms. Jensen said.

Aided by the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, she recruited the 12 local companies--including a building contractor, a community newsletter, a bike shop, and a nonprofit agency for youths--to make up this year's client list. She made them an offer: Teams of students would work with them to develop and promote commercial Web sites. The sites would appear free on the Internet server run by a key backer, the local Observer & Eccentric Newspapers.

In return, the companies each would donate $350 to the class, come to the school for a planning meeting, and give the students some mentoring about the world of work.

Those terms seemed compelling to the owners of the small and medium-size businesses who balked at spending several thousand dollars, at market price, for the same services--especially because the Web is an unproven sales tool.

Students organized into six teams, each serving two clients, and spent the first two months of school last fall learning professional graphics software and the tools to automate programming in the Web language HTML. They endured the hassles of a start-up operation: technical glitches in the school network and delays in the arrival of a color scanner. And they met with their clients, studied their businesses, and roughed out plans for the Web sites.

By December, the teams were rushing to complete Web designs, to scan photographs, to assemble and edit text, and to get clients' approval. "We had actual people counting on us," said Lael Ohdner, an 11th grader. "Sometimes you had a week where the client was coming next Monday, and you had to finish something."

By the end of the semester, all 12 Web sites were up and running, although still "under construction." Depending on the skills of the team, some sites are basic calling cards; others are deluxe.

The luckiest client may be the Wahu! Bicycle Company, served by the top Web designer in the class. David Moffitt, a 12th grader, secured permission from a bicycle manufacturer to scan its catalog, which he then added to the Web site, using his home computer. The site, still incomplete, takes up more computer memory than all the other clients' sites combined.

Personnel Shift

Late last month, the first-semester students turned over their client portfolios to their second-semester replacements, clicked them through the Web sites, and explained their design goals, both realized and unrealized. Finally, by e-mail, they told the clients of the personnel changes.

As the new Web crews become familiar with the Web-design tools, they will complete and polish the sites, adding features such as price lists, guest registers, order forms--and possibly some gizmos their predecessors hadn't thought of. "They did OK," one of the new students said of last semester's class, "but we're going to do better."

Barbara J. Thorpe, the owner of The Forward Tee, a golf-apparel shop for women, said she became a WebMaster School client because she was an Adams alumna. Ms. Thorpe said she was impressed to find the students "acting very professionally." But when she asked them to add to her Web site some of the fancy features they had shown her, "they got a little nervous," she said.

Then she bought an ad to publicize the site in a November issue of Golfweek, a weekly consumer newspaper. "I told them they had to make a deadline. They did make it, but I had to call and remind them," Ms. Thorpe said.

Unlike traditional school-based enterprises, Ms. Jensen's did not grow out of a vocational program. It is an art elective and is officially called Visual Communication. A course in art fundamentals is a prerequisite.

This also fits a trend, Mr. Stern, the Berkeley professor, said. "What's new is that [school-based enterprises] are not simply adjuncts to vocational programs but are tied to the regular curriculum."

The WebMaster School is an experimental "field study" that will be evaluated carefully before it is added to the district curriculum, said Marcia Gibbens, the director of curriculum for the Rochester school district.

But she said the course "exemplifies what the whole school-to-work movement is, by getting businesspeople in the classroom and students into workplaces."

If the WebMaster School becomes established, it may face another hurdle that other school-based enterprises have faced, Mr. Stern said: the objections of professional Web designers in the community. Those complaints could be resolved by choosing clients--especially nonprofit groups--that could not afford professional services, he said.

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