Location: Perry Local Schools in Perry, Ohio
K-12 enrollment: 1,800
Middle school program established: 2019
Student program enrollment to date: 44
This small school district lies 30 miles east of Cleveland in Lake County, once the nursery capital of America. Industry has largely replaced the region’s agricultural foundation, including a nearby power plant. Like many districts, Perry has limited financial resources. But, when the district’s leaders believe a program will benefit their students, “they are very resourceful in helping write grants and making things happen,” said teacher Bill Sarvis.
Sarvis benefitted from that innovative thinking six years ago, when he designed the entrepreneurship program at Perry High School. Students are inspired by the elective courses to become self-directed, lifelong learners. They also foster growth in the skills colleges and businesses look for: problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and troubleshooting.
A unique ceremony marks Perry Middle School students’ transition to high school: They walk across the bridge between the two buildings to symbolize their advancement from one learning environment to the next. “We talked about how powerful it would be for eighth-graders to establish an entrepreneurial mindset before they walk across the physical bridge where administrators meet them and pass the torch,” Sarvis said.
Assistant Superintendent Dr. Betty Jo Malchesky introduced Sarvis and his colleagues to the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program Middle School Edition. She had learned about it from Gary Schoeniger, Founder and CEO of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative. Five teachers and staff received training in the model at the end of 2018. Sarvis and his colleagues then designed the first exploratory course.
At the onset of the course, students read and discuss the book Who Owns the Ice House? Eight Life Lessons from an Unlikely Entrepreneur. They then have a similar experience to students in the courses Sarvis teaches at the high school. “The kids brainstorm ideas, focusing on the problems they see in the school, the community, our state, or our country,” he said. “They go through the entrepreneurial process: They identify problems, build solutions to address them, develop their ideas, then do a presentation for faculty and staff.”
ELI’s headquarters are just down the road from Perry in Mentor, Ohio. Therefore, Schoeniger was able to visit the school and help recruit students to the inaugural course. Watching him, Sarvis marveled at how students gravitated toward the idea that an entrepreneurial mindset would benefit them in high school by giving them the skills to embrace self-directed learning more.
“Sometimes, you don’t know if your message is getting through to students…But with this program, you do,” Sarvis said. The first year was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the second year was a blend of in-person and virtual classrooms. Even with these setbacks, Sarvis said, “It was awesome to see the students all rise up for their presentations. It was as if they pulled off their regular identities to reveal the Superman cape underneath. I loved their creativity.”
From among the dozens of student projects, three examples stand out in his memory. One student decided to create an attachment for the soles of shoes that provided extra traction on ice but that one could easily remove indoors after his grandmother fell on ice and broken her hip. He made a 3D model of the design for his presentation.
Another group of students did research based on their own pandemic experiences of food deliveries. These were arriving at a lukewarm temperature—regardless of whether they were supposed to be hot or cold. They came up with a system for temperature-controlled deliveries for vehicles.
A third group took a more service-oriented approach. “We’re on the south shore of the greatest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Erie,” Sarvis said. “There is a pollution problem, and the students found a plastic waste solution for the lake.” They plan to create groups of students to address the problem among community members, then scale it up to other schools.
Sarvis encourages the students to bring those ideas and many more to the high school entrepreneurship courses. He has already had several ELI program alumni continue with their projects. This includes one who teamed up with a partner to create a “garbage grabber” bar to facilitate rolling out trash bins on collection day. The improvements in their prototype between versions especially impressed Sarvis. Two students likewise impressed Sarvis when they came up with a solution to the wear and tear on gaming hand controls. This wearing out causes players’ fingers to slip. The products currently on the market to address this aren’t great, and the student team is coming up with their own design.
Sarvis said he’s excited that these are underclassmen who have already internalized the entrepreneurial mindset. They are becoming self-directed learners while still having plenty of time left in high school to shape their futures. “I tell students English is about English, math is about math, science is about science, but this class is about you.”