Location: Erie, Pennsylvania
District size: 11,000 students at 16 schools
Year of implementation: 2017
Number of middle schoolers who have completed the program: 3,000
In early August of 2021, the school board of Erie’s Public Schools approved a new social studies curriculum for the district’s seventh-graders—and officially gave its blessing for the Ice House Middle School Edition to be taught for an entire quarter. It’s a confirmation of the innovative program’s success over the past four years, led by educators who are both visionary and very practical.
Before 1960, Erie was a manufacturing center and a major Great Lakes port for coal, iron, and grain. Since then, the city has continued to lose ground, despite many revitalization efforts. According to the 2020 Census, it now has just under 95,000 residents, down 7% in the past decade.
In 2017, a group of teachers attended an Ice House training at the behest of former Assistant Superintendent Bea Habursky. She believed introducing an entrepreneurial mindset to middle school students could help reshape the Erie region. At the time, the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative had focused on offering its Ice House model to adults, college students, and high schoolers. There was skepticism that middle schoolers could grasp the concepts, but ELI’s team was open to the idea.
One of the Erie educators who attended the 2017 training was Dave Cross. He teaches social studies to seventh and eighth graders at Strong Vincent Middle School. He agreed that the lessons in the Ice House book and curriculum would resonate with his students.
Cross was instrumental in creating an age-appropriate adaptation based on his own classroom experiences. He worked with ELI to develop assessments, vocabulary lists, worksheets, teacher notes, and planning guides. He also facilitated workshops to promote the model, presented at conferences and collaborated with fellow middle school teachers. And, in 2020, Cross became an Ice House Master Facilitator.
The local program blossomed into a model for middle schools across the country. This is in large part thanks to the support of Erie’s School Board and the district’s central office. Chris Popa, one of the vice principals at Strong Vincent Middle School, credits Cross for creating over 600 pages’ worth of classroom resources. He also applauds the other seventh-grade teachers who utilize the course, the counselors who support it, the community members who share their stories with students, and the eighth-grade teachers who reinforce it by referencing the life lessons of Ice House.
Eighth-grade teachers also use Discovery Canvases to reflect on historical examples of entrepreneurial thinking and problem solving, whether students learn about time periods like the Industrial Revolution or a particular person like George Washington.
Popa estimates that more than 700 students have completed the Ice House course at Strong Vincent Middle School in the past four years. Across the district as a whole, the number totals more than 3,000 students.
“Each year that we’ve offered the Ice House, we’ve gotten better at what we do, from teaching the materials to tailoring and streamlining the content,” said Popa. He coordinates the program for the three middle schools. He also helps organize the culminating year-end event, and gives conference presentations on the district’s success using the Ice House model.
Popa is currently working with Erie’s high school administrators and teachers to extend Ice House content into the freshman seminar and beyond. There is no formal system to track long-term outcomes from Erie middle schoolers’ immersion in the model. Still, Popa said that based on anecdotal examples, “we know the entrepreneurial culture is starting to spread.”
For example, after a culminating event two years ago, Erie’s mayor requested a meeting with two seventh-grade students who had developed a detailed plan for a local business fair to address the community’s lack of awareness of small start-up businesses. Other student-generated ideas include everything from a scanner for city bus passes to environmental initiatives.
In response to the COVID pandemic, the team at Erie worked with ELI to integrate Ice House video content into the Schoology learning management system. This way, students could access it 24/7. “ELI and Erie didn’t let anything stand in their way,” Popa said. “The pandemic was just a speed bump.”
Cross and his fellow teachers work hard at the start of every Ice House course to get buy-in from students and parents. And, the pandemic helped illustrate why it’s so important to have an entrepreneurial mindset. “The world is changing so fast that we’re going to have to be resilient, to take charge of our lives, to have an internal locus of control and a growth mindset,” he said. “You won’t have careers that last for 40 years. You’ll have to adapt.”
As Cross looks beyond the classroom into the surrounding neighborhoods where his students will eventually live and work, he is optimistic that the core concepts from the Ice House model will strengthen the community. “Entrepreneurial mindsets will lead to a brighter future in Erie.”