Watch: "Independence screen-printing store doubles as a classroom for real-world learning" | 1:27
Real World Learning teaches irreplaceable skillsets to students and prepares them for success in life and learning after graduation.
Hannah Noel wears flip-flops as she exits the humidity of a Missouri summer and enters the screen-printing shop just off Independence’s Historic Square. After her junior year at William Chrisman High School ended in May, she’s spent her break at "All Things Independence" managing the launch of the new back-to-school items releasing in the fall.
With a handful of other classmates, Noel runs the store, not just as a summer job, but as a capstone class in the Independence School District Academy, which is dedicated to providing students Real World Learning before they graduate.
"I think one of the most exciting things I take away from this is obviously the real-world experience and being able to say on a job application or a college application, 'I ran a business for a year,'" Noel said. "Like that's insane to say that to someone being 17 years old."
The store Noel manages is more than just a place for students and parents to buy the newest spirit wear to rep their high schools, it’s an innovative classroom that allows students to explore their career options by putting them to the test in a real-world setting.
The school district implemented a "career academy model," with five career-based academies, in its three high schools six years ago when it partnered with the Ford: Next Generation Learning program to better prepare students with the academic and technical skills they need for future employers post-graduation.
The partnership began as a result of the district wanting high school students to gain career preparedness and overall life preparedness. District leaders had to ask the hard question: "Are we preparing kids for the jobs that are actually out there in the market today?" said Yvonne Hayes, the ISD academy coordinator.
New high school students are introduced to the model with the Freshman Academy, which allows them to weigh the different career pathways offered, ultimately choosing one, in the five career-based academies.
The "All Things Independence" store is a part of a year and a half capstone class for juniors and seniors in the Business Academy. Students in this course learn what it takes to run a business by managing the Sales, Production, Finance, Operations, and Business Development departments of the store.
"It's like entrepreneurship, you just have to jump. You have to be willing to take risks, and you just have to go for it – to be willing to accept failure and go, work, hustle," Cynthia Schluckebier, ISD business teacher, said. "From day one, they're thrown in."
Students are involved in every part of the screen-printing business. They design the prints, purchase wholesale products, screen print in the back-end of the store, tag and price merchandise, and provide customer service.
"It's 100% student-centered learning. I have given up control," Schluckebier said. "The kids do everything. They assess themselves. They assess each other. They assess me."
Schluckebier said students who work in a real-world environment learn responsibility and how to be accountable for themselves.
"If a team member is gone and they're sick, we miss them here because somebody else has got to pick up the slack," Schluckebier said. "So, it's nice that it's real because [the] kids have responsibility, and that instills passion in them."
Nearby, on Main Street, is "A Taste of Independence," a student-operated bakery. Students who work at "All Things Independence" provide the customer service for the bakery, while culinary students bake the pastries.
Students in the culinary pathway have access to an industrial culinary kitchen at Van Horn High School. Independence students have the opportunity to intern at early child learning centers or complete cadet teaching in schools, or they can renovate houses as part of the construction pathway capstone course under the industrial technology academy. More recently, the school has partnered with the locally owned Blue Ridge Bank and Trust Co.
"There’s a classroom that’s going to be within the bank, as well as opportunities for internal shadowing or internships," Hayes said. The first class for this course begins this fall.
Students also have the opportunity to connect with and learn directly from professionals in their career pathway. Each academy has "industry partners" who help teachers shape coursework, whether it’s guiding them on classroom materials to being guest speakers in class.
Schluckebier said the capstone class at "All Things Independence" focuses on entrepreneurship, finance, and innovation.
"Some of them figure out that they don't like it here," Schluckebier said. "The whole academy model is designed to focus you and figure out what you want to do, what you don't want to do, so you don't have to do that in college and pay for that in college classes," Noel said.
When Noel began working at the screen-printing store, she believed she wanted to pursue marketing as her career. But after the opportunity to put it to practice, she quickly realized it wasn’t for her.
"The class was fun in school, but doing it every single day, in real life, was not for me. So, I shifted more toward the Finance department, and that's really what I like to do now," she said.
Hayes said being able to explore interests early saves time and money, especially for those students planning to go to college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 86 out of 100 high school students are left behind by the traditional four-year college track.
"So many people either don't complete school or [they] change their majors so many times and it's super-costly, so we want them to experience and explore while they're at this level," Hayes said.
Schluckebier said it’s great because students can pivot, and she can help them figure out what the next step can be. For some, it might be finding a more effective alternative to the traditional college path.
"That 'college for all' kind of mantra mindset that I was certainly raised in is not necessarily the case," Hayes said. "At first that was difficult, not to sell, but to define and prepare our families [that] it’s okay that not everyone goes to college."
The district wants students to be prepared with the skills they need to succeed in the workforce, regardless of the post-graduate path they take to get there.
"We also leave in certain foundational values and just essential skills to make you more employable no matter what career you end up pursuing, after high school or after college," Schluckebier said.
Inherently, these programs are designed to give students real-world experience and career skills to help them market themselves better to employers post-graduation.
"They're going to have those buzzwords. They're going to know what employees are looking for," Schluckebier said. "They're going to say things like I can manage ambiguity, I can plan and align, I instill trust in others."
Noel said being the manager of a store has helped her gain skills as a leader.
"I have learned so many real-world skills that will help me in my future," Noel said. "I would say the major thing that I'm learning is adaptability, because in entrepreneurship, you have to be able to pivot from anything that can possibly go wrong, because it will.
It's very different being in a group project in a classroom and working with other people than being here where you're actually accountable for everything that you do."
Schluckebier said she constantly tries to teach her students to be "opportunity obsessed and passionate" about what they do.
"I think the hands-on real-world experience is invaluable," Schluckebier said. "You can learn things from a textbook, or from a teacher just regurgitating information, but really, solving problems yourself, having to figure it out yourself – just being thrown in the weeds and getting your hands dirty and make connections with real business people – that's irreplaceable."