As the superintendent of a large urban high school district, I have the opportunity to help identify and implement innovative programs that help prepare our students for success.

In my seven years leading East Side Union (CA) High School District (ESUHSD), I’ve watched our schools empower students to transform their lives and thrive in a global society. We’ve seen impressive growth, and a big element of our success is due to the partnerships we have forged. We’ve collaborated successfully with curriculum partners who are demonstrably aligned with our district goals and sensitive to the challenges teachers face in the classroom. Most importantly, we’ve sought out partners who offer evidence-based, research-backed programs with proven impact.

In 2016, ESUHSD adopted a renewed focus on Career and Technical Education (CTE), centered on the kind of project-based learning that would help our students be better prepared for life after high school. We believe developing students’ entrepreneurial thinking is an important part of preparing them for the future beyond high school, and research suggests youth entrepreneurship education can also help develop important non-cognitive skills such as communication and collaboration, creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking. These essential soft skills can orient young people to success and is a key component that employers in Silicon Valley are looking for. Developing these skills is the best way for our students to be able to access the innovation economy in our own backyard.

But it’s important to find the right curriculum partner. After much consideration, including the cost to the district, the implementation process, and the value to our students, we chose to collaborate with the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). NFTE is an internationally recognized nonprofit organization that focuses on bringing its unique programs to students in under-resourced communities. Their approach to activating the entrepreneurial mindset is grounded in project-based learning and emphasizes building startup skills.

NFTE has served well over a million young people since its founding in the late 1980s and is currently active in 22 states across the U.S. Their impact is proven: 74 percent of NFTE program alumni enroll in college and 89 percent say the skills they learned through NFTE classes help them in business and in life. The organization is well-equipped to help ESUHSD meet our goals, deliver the results we want for our students, and bring valuable training and professional-development (PD) opportunities to our teachers.

With the goal of instilling the entrepreneurial mindset district-wide, we have focused on three areas: programmatic alignment with our learning goals, relationships and frameworks for connecting with businesses, and PD that engages and excites our classroom teachers.

Aligning initiatives to key district focus areas
ESUHSD has a strong commitment to CTE. Our CTE Pathways programs extend to 11 high schools in our district, and a key part of this program is project-based learning, with a focus on soft skills such as communication and collaboration, creativity and innovation, critical thinking, and problem-solving. NFTE’s approach to teaching the entrepreneurial mindset involves hands-on, real-world learning that connects students to career pathways, making NFTE a perfect fit for our existing culture. After completing NFTE’s award-winning curriculum, our students gain experience working with adults, navigating challenges and failures, and are ultimately better prepared for the complexities of the business world.

Leveraging relationships with corporate and community partners
A core part of any CTE program is the hands-on experience students need to fully understand what different career paths look like, leading to a potential career. One of things NFTE brings to the table is its relationships with a broad spectrum of business and industry partners. It can rally an enthusiastic volunteer corps drawn from local Bay Area businesses as well as major corporations such as EY, SAP, Citi, PayPal, and Microsoft. NFTE volunteers bring their real-life experience into the classroom, serving as mentors and business-plan coaches and helping students begin to build their professional networks.

Supporting new initiatives with comprehensive PD and teacher training
Engaging classroom teachers is vital to the success of any initiative we implement. NFTE provides ESUHSD educators with curriculum support, offers relevant PD, and promotes rich collaboration through its professional learning communities. That’s allowed our educators to expand their professional relationships beyond the district and connect with educators from all over the country. NFTE gives teachers the support they need for student design challenges, mentoring activities, and business-plan competitions.

How to instill an entrepreneurial mindset district-wide #k12

The results of activating the entrepreneurial mindset in ESUHSD students have been tremendous. More than 500 East Side students complete the NFTE programs annually, and that’s improved their self-reliance, comfort with risk, communication, and problem-solving skills. They’re more likely to attend college, pursue higher level jobs and internships, and even start their own businesses. It’s been exciting to watch our teachers connect with their students in new ways—and to see our students embrace the entrepreneurial mindset. They graduate prepared for lifelong success, equipped with real-world career experiences and connections, and ready to thrive in the innovation economy.

Leading a school district is much more than supervising the curriculum, functions, and business aspects of our schools. I have the responsibility of ensuring that ESUHSD students graduate from high school with the skills they need to excel in their adult lives. Working with NFTE has enabled our district to build a robust entrepreneurial career pathway in the heart of Silicon Valley, expanded our relationships with local businesses, and given our teachers invaluable resources and support to teach the workforce of the next generation.

Resource box
For additional insight, download this white paper from the National Inventors Hall of Fame: How to Prepare the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

About the Author:

Chris Funk is the superintendent of East Side Union High School District in San Jose, California.