School & District Management Opinion

The Best of Both Worlds

By Susan Graham — August 19, 2011 4 min read
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The business page of Sunday’s paper featured a full page story of two young entrepreneurs. One of them was James Adams. I teach with his mom, he lives in my neighborhood and I’ve known him since he was born. I couldn’t wait to talk to him.

When I finally caught up with him today, James was on the road to Tennessee. He’s at the cusp of one of life’s big adventures—his freshman year of college. He’ll be moving into his dorm at Sewanee: The University of the South. It’s one of the highly selective Mid-Atlantic liberal arts universities affectionately known as part of the Kudzu Ivy League. The rich cultural and academically demanding climate of Sewanee’s very traditional university community will suit James.

But today was a big day for James in another way. His business, Southern Ties, is about to go retail and he and his partner are launching their new fall product line. At eighteen, James is an entrepreneur as well as a college student. When James first told me about his foray into clothing production, I admit that I was surprised. I asked about the inspiration and motivation behind his entry into the men’s accessory market and he explained that it was a school project.

James attended the Commonwealth Governor’s School, a school-within-a-school program for academically talented and gifted students, which serves about 500 students, grades 9 through 12, at five sites in three counties. His four academic core classes were taught within the Governor’s School with the other three periods in host neighborhood high school. The program overview states that the Governor’s School is designed to allow students to

...[A]chieve a deep conceptual understanding of a discipline as well as its integration with other disciplines...through opportunities to experiment, analyze information critically, make conjectures and argue their validity, and solve real world problems both individually and in groups....and develop technology skills for effective communication, investigation, and presentation.

James explained that each year there was an independent culminating project that was a major component of student performance. He told me about how, as a freshman, he was expected to create a project proposal. With a strong interest in architecture, his proposal was for a visionary eco-friendly high school. As a sophomore, the expectation was that he would design a project plan. His plan for a West Coast version of the Epcot Center began to require theory to mesh with the pragmatism of functionalism and development. By the time he was a junior, the real world problem chosen required a business plan. James began to refine big dreams into feasible realities with his plan for a bookstore/bistro. As a senior, James was expected to turn proposals, designs, and business plans into a product and the result was Southern Ties. I asked him why he chose this project he told me he had a growing interest in business. I asked him, as a businessman, what he expected as return on his investment of creativity, knowledge, effort and time. His answer—"I wanted an A.”

James had done his research, designed his product, built a business plan and created a website and half a dozen sample ties. He was surprised when a merchant in Tennessee contacted him and ask if he could deliver two dozen ties in less than a week. His project had taken on its own life. Now, three months later and his ties are available at two stores and on-line. He and his partner have contracted out production and are planning to expand the product line. His project has become a viable small business.

We talked about the sequence of these projects and how they had funneled from big ideas to achievable realities. We laughed about the fact that he didn’t learn to sew in my class because he was a band kid and only got to stay in FACS class for three weeks. His partner’s mom helped them with sewing. James told me that he had to teach himself how to create his website because he had never taken a computer technology course. He was in Governor’s School and there really wasn’t much time electives. We agreed that it was ironic that the success of his academic program project was dependent on teaching himself skills that were available in Career and Technical Education courses available in his school.

There is an enormous amount of talk about college and career readiness in public education. I look at James and see a success story of a conceptual academic learner who has grounded his abstract understandings with concrete applications. He distilled big ideas into real life solutions. But there are other students who process learning the other way around. Only after they acquire and concrete skill are they interested in exploring the academic background that increase their expertise. Maybe, for these students, success lies in using practical skills as the foundation for expanding learning.

In the discussion of college and career readiness, education stakeholders sometimes get caught up in determining which ought to come first, preparation for college or preparation for career. That’s a chicken or the egg argument. James found success by distilling his big picture knowledge into a small business action plan. Another student might expand his knowledge of physics and math to enhance his mechanical drafting skills. Both are viable paths can to college and career readiness, both are valuable and both should be offered as equally desirable options to all students.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.