We met on a chilly morning at Bread Company on Olive and squeezed into a small table in the middle of the restaurant. The morning rush was in full swing as we leaned over the table to better hear each other above the hustle and bustle.
Testing is always a subject of dissension in educational circles, and while Jennifer informed me that the school performs well on state tests, that’s not the end goal. “In our district success is more than just how we do on state tests, it’s more about our kids being capable, curious, and confident. Ever since I got there, my comment is always, ‘If we want them to understand and respond to an ever changing world, we need to put them in the ever-changing world.’”
From the moment she first took on this role, Jennifer has taken this maxim seriously. Within one year she assisted in developing a pre-professional life sciences academy in conjunction with Barnes-Jewish West. The first semester kids go to class and the second they spend at the hospital doing clinical rotations and shadowing surgeries. The feedback from both the students and hospital staff has been very positive.
It Wasn’t Always Easy
Jennifer is one member of the team that was formed to develop educational programs for the Parkway district. Their goal was to foster curiosity and creativity in the students and help them acquire important real-world skills. “We became the disruptive nudgers within the organization. We had to get school officials to think differently and beyond what we’re used to, because it’s really easy to get kind of stuck in that mental model of ‘this is how it is’.”
As their meetings got underway one thing became clear. If their goal was fostering curiosity and creativity in students, they didn’t have all of the answers. “It’s about capturing ideas. It’s not about us sitting in a room and being the keepers of all ideas.”
After stumbling across the idea of business incubators, the group began to realize the extent of the entrepreneurial scene in St. Louis. Touring places like the T-Rex incubator and the Cambridge Innovation Center, they asked themselves, “Why do we need our kids in our buildings for six hours every day when they are seniors in high school getting ready to go out into the real world?”
And so by combining the idea that they didn’t have all the answers with the knowledge that St. Louis was becoming an entrepreneurial hub, Spark! was born. Moving forward with the concept wasn’t easy, however. “We thought, this is crazy! We can’t do this!” But one meeting with the superintendent’s action team was all it took for the wheels to be set in motion.
Not Your Traditional Class
Once the all-clear was received, Jennifer and team held a round-table with important names in the entrepreneurial sphere in order to put together a plan of action. These discussions led to some amazing insights. “They felt like the kids needed to understand bootstrapping and the lean startup. They went through a ton of soft skills you need to have, lots of conversations around resilience, and a perfected pitch…”
Having the desire to further your learning and skills, even after school, is a huge component of success. That’s why Spark! is not structured like your traditional class. “It’s not an entrepreneurship class, per se, it’s a kid saying ok I’m ready to file for an LLC what do I need to do? Well, let’s learn, let’s figure out what we need to do. Because in the real world when you have a question or you don’t know how to do something, you don’t have a teacher standing right there telling you.”
All of these reasons and more are why the Spark! incubator is NOT located within a Parkway school building. “As much as we’d want the classroom to feel like real work, when you still have to get a pass to use the restroom or a bell rings, it’s not the same.” Applying advice from the entrepreneurial round-table, it was decided that a location at Chesterfield Mall would provide enough autonomy for the teens.
Getting Involved in the Community & Getting the Community Involved
The 15 entrepreneurs selected out of around 25, are required to perform professional development hours, but the way they choose to fulfill these hours is up to them. Anything from attending One Million Cups to a Hack-a-thon to taking an outside class is acceptable. “Having them understand that literally from seven in the morning until 10 o’clock at night you could go to something entrepreneurial related - because there’s always something going on in St. Louis.”
Being involved in the community is a big part of what Spark! is all about, but getting the community involved in the project is crucial, as well. Jennifer has found herself regularly receiving email introductions to thought-leaders and important members of the startup ecosystem. These relationships have turned into unique opportunities for the kids with high profile speakers presenting at Spark!, one-on-one mentoring, or even field trips, and they’re always seeking more of this.
“I Was an Entrepreneur and Here’s My Business Plan.”
Overwhelmingly the response from students and the community has been positive, but there are naysayers. Parkway has a high percentage of students who go on to postsecondary education. So several people have asked Jennifer if she’s prepared to tell parents when kids don’t want to go to college because they’re trying to start a company.
“First of all I’m not going to advise anyone one way or the other, but this idea that that’s just what you do when you’re 18 and figure it out later… that’s an expensive exploration plan. Wouldn’t you rather they dabble and get clarity?”
I explained to Jennifer that one of my degrees is Vocal Performance and that I was going to be an opera singer, but realizing the impracticality, I added a business major roughly halfway through my program. “Right,” she added, “I’m all about pursuing dreams. A lot is about doing what you love, but then you also have to be a productive member of society. There’s that balance.”
The Spark! team still doesn’t have answers for questions like, ‘what will this look like on a transcript’, but if the success of the school’s Health Sciences program is any indication, the answer to this question won’t matter. Students who complete the HS program are now directly recruited by Mizzou and one student even applied to 7 different medical schools and was accepted into every one. “It’s not about like, ‘Oh, I took an entrepreneurship class and got a credit when I was in high school. No. I was an entrepreneur and here’s my business plan.”
An hour later Jennifer and I were still enthusiastically discussing the merits of experiential learning. Realizing the hour we scooped the trash off of our table and said goodbye. But not before I asked her favorite thing about St. Louis.
“I think we are just a hidden gem in terms of just opportunities for things to do. It is a very small big city. And it’s interesting, through these meetings and kinds of things like, ‘Will you talk to so-and-so?’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh! I met with them last week!’ Everybody just kind of knows everybody. I absolutely love that piece of it.”