Austin district launches student entrepreneurship program

A handful of students at Crockett High School scribble madly across the white board as a pocket of peers gathers around them, tossing out ideas.

There are no classroom desks and chairs. The teens instead are gathered in groups on sofas and lounge chairs or bar tops and stools, with laptops and smartphones at hand to aid their research. They lead their own discussions as instructors check in from time to time.

So it feels a lot more like a workplace than a classroom, which is what Crockett’s new entrepreneurship program is all about.

“Nothing excites me more than the future of this program,” said Kain Evans, a sophomore at Crockett. “I can’t wait to see all of my friends grow up and become great entrepreneurs and start their own businesses and go out and do something completely different from everyone else.”

Under the program, the students will work with Austin-area businesses and mentors to support, guide and critique their ideas and products. Earlier this month, the district unveiled the revamped classroom the students can use as a work space to develop their concepts. Through a partnership with Austin software maker Bazaarvoice Inc., the program will help students prepare to launch a nonprofit or business by the time they graduate high school.

The students recently journeyed to the Austin technology incubator Capital Factory and participated in a mini-hackathon to find a way to get desalinated water to places that need it. The mentors from Capital Factory listened to the students’ pitches and gave them feedback on their process. A couple of students also are working with a mentor to participate in the city’s so-called Reverse Pitch competition, in which entrepreneurs who heard pitches from local businesses and nonprofits that have raw and used materials can transform those materials into something viable rather than send them to the landfill.

“It’s a way of breaking down the walls of the classroom and inviting the community help be part of education,” said Sarah Dille, a Crockett English teacher who received training this summer to teach the incubator curriculum. “It’s not assuming that anyone is an expert in all things, but that we all in the community can come together to push students to learn.”

The high school students also have been tasked with curating an exhibit for the Manchaca library on 10 Austinites who they feel have been revolutionaries for the community, including restaurant owner Harry Akin, who integrated his Night Hawk restaurants in the late 1950s and later became mayor of Austin. Another is Susana Almanza, executive director of PODER, which works toward solving environmental issues and increasing participation of communities of color related to those concerns.

Rather than researching solely from Internet search engines, the students must interview their subjects or people who know them.

Lily Davisson, a sophomore, said she hopes the program helps her learn to quickly solve problems and adapt.

“There’s nothing stable in the business world,” Lily said. “You have to be able to change your plans. I think that will be really helpful in any field.”

The district started the entrepreneur program at Crockett last year, and expanded it to the schools that feed into the high school, including Bedichek and Covington Middle and Cunningham and Odom Elementary schools. The Bazaarvoice Foundation donated $162,610 for the K-12 program, which will cost the district about $5,000 annually to maintain. The classroom update was paid for with a federal career and technology grant.

At Bedichek, students are creating surveys and learning how to craft questions that will elicit the most information in a response. They are also learning coding.

“I’m very excited about the entrepreneurship program,” said Malik Taylor, an eighth-grader. “I love technology, and I want to be involved in the business around technology. I feel it’s always going to advance. I want to be able to start my own business someday and hopefully improve the technology base.”

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