January 01, 2004 1 min read
Lu Ann Smith makes sewing a profitable exercise.

Mountain View High School students who tear their shorts during gym class and teachers whose pants burst at the seams after poor cafeteria choices don’t have to go far to get their clothes fixed. They merely head down the hall of the Bend, Oregon, school to Lu Ann Smith’s classroom. That’s where they’ll find Cougar Alterations, a business run by students and supervised by Smith. Named after the school mascot, it employs about 100 volunteer sewers and a student manager who handles the bookkeeping and operations. A professional seamstress helps establish prices (usually half of her own) and advises the budding tailors.

Smith opened the shop four years ago, after school officials asked teachers to connect classroom lessons to the “real world.” Around the same time, the band director approached Smith with an emergency request: Eighty uniforms needed to be let out before the marching band’s first competition. “It was a sea of red in here,” Smith recalls, with students feverishly altering the uniforms. She then realized that the entire school community needed an alterations service— to precisely hem newly issued ROTC cadet pants, steam graduation gowns, and more. So, she advertised in Mountain View’s parent newsletter, and orders began to roll in. Last year, students fixed about 250 garments, earning more than $1,000, which they reinvested in supplies.

Students, who are welcome in Smith’s courses at any skill level, develop more than just their sewing talents. Maggi Rimel, Smith’s first manager, designed and ordered tracking and billing forms and comparison-shopped for pins, thread, seam rippers, and a professional steamer. “I learned more than I would have sitting in [business] class,” she says, “simply because I got to use the skills in a practical application.” The experience has inspired several students, including Rimel, to further their studies at design and art schools.

Assistant principal Kathryn Legace applauds the project, saying Smith manages to get “the very best out of her students.” Legace should know: She’s responsible for their most difficult task to date—reupholstering a 100-year-old rocking chair. “They had never attempted such a complicated project,” she notes. “Yet they completed it with care and at a reasonable cost.”

—Aviva Werner

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A version of this article appeared in the January 02, 2004 edition of Teacher as Colleagues