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Educators foster entrepreneurship.

Educators foster entrepreneurship

As Americans have perceived a relative decline in their economic prowess during the last several years, the fickle finger of blame has pointed in many directions, including at the nation's primary and secondary schools. Low scores on standardized tests and high dropout rates relative to other industrialized countries, especially Japan, are seen as symptoms of a more ominous disease.

Philip Condit, an executive of the Boeing Corp. in Seattle, says, "I am convinced that any true fix for the problems U.S. industry is experiencing in facing foreign competition must begin by taking a comprehensive look at our primary and secondary education systems, and discovering why our children are inherently fascinated with the way things work, but become, as adults, content to know only the size and shape of things around them."

Author James Fallows argues that the declining quality of American education is causing our work force to lose its lead in product and service innovation. Such concerns have generated calls for reforms such as developing a global view and encouraging greater cooperation between schools and business. These proposals, in turn, are the subject of a smaller controversy, with critics warning that once again educators are being asked to slavishly remold curricula to serve the narrow interests of business and industry.

Meanwhile, deep in the trenches, entrepreneurial educators continue to explore ways that will help balance the changing needs of society with the needs of the individual. Objectives such as increasing industrial competitiveness are on the agenda, but so are things such as developing a more global perspective, building self-esteem and confidence, increasing math and computer skills, and learning how to run a small business.

Alaska is lucky to have two entrepreneurship programs that could be models for the rest of the nation: Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka and the Anchorage School District's International Trade Program at the Martin Luther King Jr. Career Center. Both have been assisted by the Office of Adult and Vocational Education of the Alaska Department of Education.

Sitka. The students at Mount Edgecumbe learn about Pacific Rim cultures and how to make and market smoked salmon for Japanese consumers. The years of fiddling with oven temperatures, salt content, vacuum packs and market strategies have paid off in different ways. The students recently sold a sample batch to a Japanese client, and now the Koreans want a piece of the action.

Although the students had agreed to pass the recipes and marketing know-how on to a local business, on behalf of the students, school superintendent Larrae Rochleau refused to turn over the goods. "We studied Japanese quality requirements and this Alaska company was not willing to do it the way we know it needs to be done," Rochleau said. No one in town could recall a time when high school students dictated quality standards to adult business people.

But bruised feelings have healed, and the students have identified a business they can work with. In fact, the owner is making the trip to Japan this summer with a new batch of students.

Anchorage. Two years ago, Robin Zerbel received a grant from the state to start an international trade program in the Anchorage School District. For Zerbel, entrepreneurship needed to be more than how-to-start-a-business skills. She recognized that entrepreneurs are creators of drama and that entrepreneurship is a process of always searching for change, responding to it, and exploiting it as an opportunity.

The program launched by Zerbel essentially is an international-trade, market-research business, with special emphasis on Japan. In addition to entrepreneurship and basic business skills, students learn international economics and Japanese language. Advanced students do internships with local businesses that have international links. Federal Express, Soviet Services, and the World Trade Center Alaska have employed interns. Other placements are in the works.

Lessons. What are we learning from Mount Edgecumbe and the King Career Center programs? No systematic evaluation has been conducted, but folks involved with these programs -- in teaching, learning, funding, and advising -- have some impressions about what's happening.

* Studying Japan gives students the opportunity to go beyond stereotypes, myths, and superficialities to develop an analytical framework that helps them understand relations between superpowers and the links between their hometowns and Japanese hometowns. In Sitka, the emphasis is on studying Japanese approaches to quality. As Rochleau puts it, "We teach our kids that there's a right way to do things and a half-baked way to do things. More often than not, the Japanese do things in a way our kids should experience for themselves."

* Local businesses get to contribute to education in a meaningful way. Resources are shared, problems can be addressed. High schools, businesses, the Department of Education and the university start to see themselves as part of a larger picture, a system that is holistic and evolving, as opposed to linear and compartmentalized.

* Both programs have created a positive vision involving personal creativity and innovation, quality of thought and work, the importance of a long-term outlook for personal growth, knowledge of another culture, and ways of thinking that emphasize the "bigger picture." Both programs seem to start from the assumption that learning about Japan and how to do business there is good because it will benefit the individual student, the community, and Alaska. Significantly, there's a vision here that emphasizes connectedness with things beyond narrow self-interests.

Zerbel feels that this kind of work experience, coupled with what happens in the classroom, develops in some students a desire for more learning and a sense that work can be a source of personal fulfillment. She laments that many young people seem to feel work is what you do when you're not seeking fulfillment.

The problem addressed by the Boeing executive will not be resolved soon. But teachers around Alaska are involved in stimulating curiosity, questioning, creativity, and learning by doing. Teachers and business people are working together. Says Rochleau, "When these kids graduate they'll really have an idea about what it takes to be successful in this world."

He might add that the kids will also have an idea about what it takes to make the world a better place.

Dr. John Kim is executive director of the Alaska Center for International Business and professor in the University of Alaska Anchorage's School of Business.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
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Title Annotation:programs of two Alaskan high schools help students learn about business and industries
Author:Kim, John
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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