South Shore School of Entrepreneurship

By Sarah Barton, Sagamore Institute Center on Faith in Communities

Adapted from Entrepreneurship Education: Learning By Doing, published by The Appalachian Regional Commission with support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, 2004.

In 2001, 94 percent of the 11th grade students at South Shore Academy, a large public high school in the inner city of Chicago, failed to meet state standards for core subjects. Bill Gerstein, high school teacher and grocery store owner, seized upon the idea of forming a distinct and independent entity within the school that would focus its program around entrepreneurship. In a word, the vision was for a “school within a school.” South Shore’s students, Gerstein knew, suffered not only from poverty but also from a lack of hope.

The entrepreneurial South Shore School of entrepreneurship launched with 120 students and six teachers, with Gerstein as principal. The program includes both academic work and hands-on activities. Every Wednesday, freshmen engage in internships, working in for-profit and non-profit organizations. Sophomores begin work on their business plans, which must be completed by graduation. Soon after starting the School, Gerstein obtained financial support from the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative, an education reform experiment funded largely by Bill and Melinda Gates, and several other groups such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Illinois Institute for Entrepreneurial Education (IIEE) is actively involved in the school, providing teacher training, designing the school’s curriculum, and working with students. Teachers work entrepreneurial themes into daily lessons in all subjects, including both academic and hands-on projects. According to Hazel King of IIEE, not only does entrepreneurship education provide students with hope, it enables them to channel entrepreneurial skills some may already possess from selling drugs on the street to more positive endeavors.

In 2003, students in the school started two in-school businesses, one selling school supplies and personal accessories such as jewelry, and the other selling snacks after school. Plans for additional in-school businesses are in progress as well.

The school now has about 250 students and 16 faculty members. Although the program is relatively new, early outcomes look positive. School attendance has improved and dropout rates and disciplinary problems have decreased. Though the majority of students attending the School of Entrepreneurship still struggle academically, the percentage scoring at or above national norms has increased markedly.

Gerstein believes that the School of Entrepreneurship encourages students to have an active mind and helps students to assert control over their lives. Entrepreneurship education lends itself to realistic academic work and gives hope to students who believe their job prospects are limited.