Rural Teens Talk Trash And Cash, Pick Up Skills

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ROANOKE RAPIDS, N.C.—Prosperity flies by the car window on the 70-mile drive from high-tech Durham to this economically depressed city: acres of full-bulbed cotton, belching tractor-trailers loaded with freshly cut lumber, and tract after tract of under-construction upscale housing.

A makeshift, stuffy one-story classroom - beset by dust gusts stirred up by heavy machinery detailed for construction of the new Roanoke Rapids High School - serves as Gail Powers' creative laboratory for involving 10 youths in an elective entrepreneurship class exercise called "Trash to Treasure."

"Okay if I shut the windows?" Powers, a 36-year-old African American, asks the mostly white, mostly male group. With their affirmative reply, they give up fresh air to form competitive groups that create marketable items from "trash" - plastic cups, string, glue and paper clips. This takes them, in under an hour, through the small business process of coming up with an idea, identifying materials needed, cost and haggling, naming the product and demonstrating it.

In a town flickered on the map by the 1979 movie "Norma Rae," which depicted the local textile mill owners' abuse of the workforce in its efforts to unionize in the 1970s, this exercise takes on special meaning.

"This helps young people see opportunities where they live, a necessity to preventing the depopulation of rural communities," observes Rick Larson, national director of the Durham-based REAL (Rural Entrepreneurship through Action Learning) Enterprises. The small mills featured in "Norma Rae," Larson points out, were eventually bought by larger companies and the jobs "moved to El Salvador."

Passing Muster

Trash to Treasure is a small component of what Larson describes as an "interactive, experiential" entrepreneurship curriculum and teacher-training program developed by REAL that is being taught in 250 high schools and 140 elementary and middle schools nationwide. Since 1991 REAL has involved over 7,500 elementary, middle and high school youth and adults, and 900 instructors in predominantly rural communities in 31 states.

Even in the shark-infested waters of the small everybody-knows-what's-going-on for-profit and nonprofit youth entrepreneurial field, the nonprofit REAL passes muster. "We've heard nothing but good things about them, they are admired in the field," offers Aaron Bocage, co-founder of Camden's Education, Training and Enterprise Center (EDTEC), a for-profit packager of school curricula with strong roots in urban youth work.

Steve Morris, chairman of Atlanta's KidsWay, a for-profit that produces a curriculum for teacher training and periodicals for a worldwide market, praises REAL for a "very effective track record" and creating an "important niche in our industry."

Foundations Dig Deep

REAL's genesis was in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1970s, in the mind of Jonathan Sher, then director at the Center for Community Change. He thought up the idea of school-based "community development corporations" to keep rural youth in their communities by making them job creators. Paul DeLargy, an entrepreneur and educator, used Sher's idea and a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to develop the first pilot project in Brooks County, Ga., in 1979. A student-owned day care center and small construction company resulted.

Sher and DeLargy partnered in 1986 and, with grants from local foundations such as the Winston-Salem-based Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, REAL launched its first effort at five sites in North Carolina. The upshot: a boat rental business, screen printing businesses and a delicatessen stood where none had stood before.

More than $2 million in grants followed from the likes of Ford, Annenberg and DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest. "Back then," remembers Babcock Foundation board member Mary Mountcastle, "we were always looking for good ideas, and REAL was a good idea. They've proven us right."

Sher and DeLargy turned the reins over to others in the '90s and moved on to other ventures. REAL now has an annual operating budget of $588,000, more than half of which is paid by fees charged for services. For example, school districts are charged an initial $800 for a REAL curriculum, followed by a $50 annual licensing fee. REAL's 13 member organizations are assessed $2,500 annually. The majority of them, such as Alabama REAL Enterprises, are affiliated with universities in their respective states. The University of Alabama makes REAL a part of its Program for Rural Services project.

An evaluation by the Brandeis University Center for Human Resources concluded, among other things, that REAL "is less a product than a process, one that invites students to take charge of their own learning and instructors to serve as allies and facilitators, not guardians of expertise." Also, the study found, "an important element ... is REAL's ability to contour itself to local conditions."

The Brandeis survey of nine states in the South and West revealed what the authors (Andrew Hahn, Paul Aaron and Roblyn Anderson) called the "striking" discovery that nearly 53 percent of REAL students came from families that owned their own businesses. Larson was not "particularly" surprised, explaining that youths from family backgrounds that include running a small store or similar enterprise would be predisposed to REAL.

Landscaping in Rocky Mount

A "predisposed" example is John Turner, 20, the beefy, hard-working owner of J.L. Turner's Services (landscaping, athletic surfaces) in Rocky Mount, N.C. - where as residents say, "Hurricane Floyd was felt good." Although he comes from an entrepreneurial family, the 1999 graduate of Wilson Fike High School in Wilson credits REAL and his teacher Mary Davis with making him a business success.

"REAL jump-started me," he says. "I couldn't deal with people, I wanted my way all the time. But REAL taught me a positive attitude, how to negotiate, how to talk to people. How to manage people. And how to plan long term."

While his grandfather, who owns a small gas station and "sells seafood out back," is a role model, REAL means a lot to a young man who now owns "a John Deere diesel, a couple of trailers and two trucks." An Eagle Scout and a former football star, he now services 145 acres of lawns, recreational fields and development properties weekly. "And still growin'," he adds.

Ditto 18-year-old Brian Blalock of Brian Blalock Welding of Rougemont, N.C. in rural Orange County, 50 miles south of Durham. A 1999 graduate of a REAL program at nearby Orange High School in Hillsborough, N.C., Blalock, while standing in his business' driveway, credits REAL with "teaching me how to sit down, structure my business and make long- range plans."

"My wish was never having to work for anybody," says Blalock, whose father, who runs his own business as a designer of heavy equipment, looks on. While he now builds trailers and repairs heavy equipment, he hopes one day to manufacture flatbeds.

While such personal testimonials can speak volumes, Larson concedes that REAL has not come up with a measuring device to directly link quantifiable numbers of successful business ventures with its curriculum.

More Girls

A participants and outcomes study released in 1997 by the Community and Economic Development Division of the West Virginia University Extension Service noted that "REAL schools tend to be located in counties that are less prosperous than their respective states."

And despite the Turner and Blalock success stories, a REAL 1998-1999 demographic survey of its high school program showed that girls (50.7 percent) outnumber boys in the program. Whites represent a big majority (72.9 percent), with other ethnic groups trailing: African American (18.8 percent); Hispanic (3.4 percent); Asian, Pacific Islander (3.2 percent); and American Indian, Alaskan Native (1.6 percent). Among the rural and semi-rural school districts surveyed were those in Washington state, Vermont, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Alabama, Ohio, California, Texas, Idaho and Rhode Island.

There is, however, more to REAL than setting up businesses. In addition to offering entrepreneurship education for children (K-8), youth (9-12) and adults (in community colleges and four-year institutions), REAL provides community-based youth service providers with after-school and summer programs - reaping other benefits.

Community-Based Efforts

"It was a strong success with us," says David King, executive director of the Ohio/West Virginia YMCA. "For 23 years, we've had a week-long summer camp held in St. George, W. Va. consisting of teenagers from 70 schools in the state that focused on leadership and entrepreneurship. But the summer of '99 with REAL was the best."

King says the usual entrepreneurial "routine" was to have some business role model lecture the group or, perhaps, go on a field trip to a business location. "But," remembers King, "last summer, the REAL instructor didn't stand in front and lecture. He involved 150 kids in problem-solving in a day-long session that kept their interest and involvement high. It was very interactive."

Conditions are sometimes so dire, however, that REAL can't gain a foothold. Steve Hodges, who runs the United Methodist Church-funded Jubilee Project in Sneedville, Tenn., attempted an after-school entrepreneurial program in a county (Hancock) with the lowest per capita income in the state.

"The youth, eighth- through twelfth-graders, were quick and fast with the experiential learning. But they drifted away because there's no industry here. We're losing young people faster than any county in the state," says a glum Hodges.

'Icing on the Cake'

Although it is its high school model that usually brings plaudits to REAL, it does not send battalions of rural teens into the community as instantaneous Horatio Alger stories. After all, the REAL class is fully integrated into the schools' regular curriculum and, as such, is offered for only one year (for full academic credit). Even a stand-alone REAL curriculum is designed for a 55-minute, five-day-a-week daily session for one school year. Ideally, it is targeted for seniors, because they are more likely than younger students to have decided what kind of careers they will pursue.

The class is focused on three objectives: personal assessment of interest and abilities, analysis of the local community to determine small business opportunities, and researching and writing a business plan.

Most REAL-trained instructors are responsible for teaching related, yet different, classes; as a result, says teacher Powers, they tend to "blend in" REAL material. Powers, who is assigned to Workforce Development Education, teaches a basic marketing class, a citizenship class and a small business entrepreneurship class. "I blend the REAL curriculum into all the classes because it is so lively and user-friendly," she says.

The entrepreneurship class is, in effect, the REAL class, and Powers says that as an elective the course "attracts those who already have enough credits to graduate, have no interest in business, but like to get involved in group exercises."

In her six years of teaching the REAL course at Roanoke Rapids, Powers admits she has no headline-grabbing success story to tell. But she mentions students like senior Brad Austin, who had already secured a loan to start up a landscaping business. "It was during a REAL class exercise that he began to realize that he was about to bite off more than he could chew at this moment. He canceled out and saved himself many headaches. That was a positive learning experience," says Powell.

Larson, too, waxes philosophical: "If students start a business immediately after the program, that's icing on the cake. But our objective is to help young people exercise their minds. To focus them on micro-economics. Determine when an idea is good. Explore the possibilities. And to provide them with life-skills such as decision-making and compromising with others."

It was, after all, the Roanoke Rapids students who elected to seal up their stuffy classroom in order to focus on exercising their minds.