At Perry Middle School in Perry, Ohio, students’ transition to high school is marked by a unique ceremony: They walk across the bridge between the two buildings to symbolize their advancement from one learning environment to the next.
The district of 1,800 students started implementing entrepreneurship courses at the high school level six years ago. A group of teachers and administrators soon realized that younger students could benefit from a similar program.
“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,” said Bill Sarvis, the teacher who developed the high school’s entrepreneurship program.
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, and Sarvis and his colleagues designed the first exploratory course.
Starting Middle Schoolers on a Powerful Path
Students start the course by reading and discussing the book Who Owns the Ice House? Eight Life Lessons from an Unlikely Entrepreneur. Then Sarvis turns them loose to put the life lessons into action. “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 skill set for self-directed learning.
“Sometimes, you don’t know if your message is getting through to students,” Sarvis said. “But with this program, you do.” Even with the first year being interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the second year a blend of in-person and virtual classrooms, 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.”
Identifying Their Problems to Solve
Perry Local Schools 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. This geography inspired one group of students.
“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.
Another group of students did research based on their own pandemic experiences of food deliveries. These arrived 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.
One student took an even more personal approach. After his grandmother fell on ice and broke her hip, he brainstormed an attachment for the soles of shoes that strap on to provide extra traction on ice but that one can easily remove indoors. He created a 3-D model of the design for his presentation.
“I was really excited when I heard about this ELI program,” Sarvis said. He grew up in a household with two family-run businesses. Sarvis also worked as the art director for an advertising agency before switching careers to become a teacher 29 years ago. He believes the Ice House curriculum fosters the thinking skills, creativity, resolve, and collaboration middle schoolers need to prepare for the rigors of high school.
During the Ice House program’s first two years at Perry Middle School, 44 students have taken the exploratory course. Sarvis is excited to grow the program more in the future—and he has a recruitment message that resonates: “I tell students English is about English, math is about math, science is about science, but this class is about you.”