It’s a Monday afternoon—a school day—and The Parks at Arlington mall in Texas is cluttered with teenagers. But these kids aren’t pumping quarters into arcade games, and they aren’t playing hooky; they are attending classes.

The select group of high school students has come to participate in a hands-on learning initiative that teaches kids the ins and outs of retail management by employing them to market and operate The School Zone, a wildly colorful store where parents, students, and other enthusiasts can purchase t-shirts, sweatshirts, pennants, and pins adorned with their favorite high school mascots.

The project is part of the Arlington Independent School District’s Class in the Parks program, a marketing and business-education initiative that combines classroom instruction with the inimitable benefit of on-the-job experience.

According to Craig Wright, the district’s director of career and technology education programs, the project was conceived as a way to prepare students for careers in entrepreneurship.

“With this store, students get to see the real workings of a business model,” Wright said. “Our main goal to is to have students coming out of this program ready for all aspects of the retail profession.”

The 800 square-foot retail store is adjoined to a 2,000 square-foot distance learning classroom complete with 30 wireless laptop computers, Wright said. This year, more than 130 students will take part in the program, which offers courses such as Accounting I and II, Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Retailing, and eCommerce. The store, which opened Aug. 1, is only the second store in the nation to be owned and operated by a school district, Wright said.

In class, students use their laptops to do research, develop advertising, edit photos, perform statistical cost analyses, and take tests. “Technology is an everyday part of the curriculum. We use the internet extensively,” said Deborah Blackner, a teacher/coordinator at The School Zone.

According to Blackner, the project holds four classes per school day, and 24 students attend each class.

But it’s what goes on outside the classroom that brings the project’s ingenuity to light, she said. Students are encouraged to use their newly acquired business savvy to help improve the store’s bottom line and—eventually—to make a profit. “The store is a real-world setting for us to apply what we are teaching,” Blackner said. “We envision it as a learning laboratory to apply what we learn in the classroom.” The School Zone keeps to the mall’s normal business hours and operates under the supervision of one manager, two assistant managers, and between four and six student employees, Wright said.

Students employed at the store are allowed to work no more than 20 hours per week and are paid $7 an hour. Originally, those wages were higher, but in the business world, tough economic times mean tough cuts, Wright said.

Not every student gets to work in the store as a paid employee, but each contributes in some way to its daily business functions.

For instance, students who participate in the eCommerce class will be asked to build an online component to the store, Wright said. The kids will be in charge of everything from initial research and development to the design and upkeep of the site itself. “We want kids to really feel they have a sense of ownership here,” he said.

To be considered for the program, students must apply through their guidance counselors. Once the counselors have reviewed the students’ academic records, attendance, and sincerity of interest in the retail program, they are allowed to register for on-site classes and are eligible to work in the store, Wright said.

There is some concern, however, that students who become too committed to The School Zone project might fall behind in other studies.

To make sure kids maintain a sense of academic balance, Wright said, teachers at The School Zone are encouraged to monitor the activities and study habits of participating students in traditional classes as well. Those students who are falling behind could be asked to leave the program, Wright said.

But that’s a consequence most students won’t ever have to face, Blackner said. She believes kids will want to receive recognition for the hard work they have brought to the store by entering competitions such as those held by the Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA), a national association for marketing, management, and entrepreneurship education. And there’s a catch: Students can’t enter the competition unless they have passing grades in all of their classes, she said.

“I think it’s more of a benefit than a detriment,” Blackner said. “The kids want to go to these competitions. They know they have to keep their grades up.”

Though the district received the space for the store—valued at $50,000 annually—free through a partnership with General Growth Properties, the same company that owns the mall, Wright said the district did have to pay for all of the equipment used in the classroom. However, he said, the district also was spared from having to pay additional maintenance and cleaning fees associated with the area directly in front of the store.

According to Wright, the district’s biggest expense is the $140,000 it must pay annually to meet the salaries for store employees.

As is the case with any retail business, proprietors of The School Zone do expect the store to make a profit, eventually. But, in the end, if sacrifices are made at the expense of learning, Blackner says, so be it.

“We just hope to open a lot of eyes and to help students see the many career options that are available to them,” she said. “The goal of the store is not profit, it’s education.”

Links:

Arlington Independent School District
http://www.arlington.k12.tx.us

Distributive Education Clubs of America
http://www.deca.org