CNN’s recent feature on Fenway High School’s award-winning Ventures Program prompted us to track down its Director, Amy Carrier. We wanted to know how this program continues to engage Boston’s diverse professional community in setting real-world standards for Fenway students. Amy was interviewed by Craig Levis, ERC associate.
CL- Amy, I understand that you and Fenway Ventures were recently featured on CNN. First of all, congratulations, and secondly, why do you surmise they were interested in covering something like Ventures?
AC- Thanks for asking me to comment. I think the producers of Chalk Talk, the program that featured my interview, are looking for examples of what’s new and different, programs that are really “working” in our public schools. The Ventures program is an example of a best practice in education that has been shown to make a difference in preparing students for success in a 21st century workplace.
CL- How would you describe the Ventures program at Fenway, how long has it been in the school, and why do you think it has been successful with and for students?
AC- Fenway was forward-thinking in this arena when it began a version of the program over a dozen years ago. Students partnered with external organizations to do business planning and have a real-world example of how their creative thinking could make a difference to an existing institution. Since that time, the program has grown and changed – responding and flexing to the trends of an ever-changing business world. Today, 120 students each year are required to take the course in eleventh and twelfth grades where they learn entrepreneurship, write business plans, explore careers, practice professionalism skills and learn financial literacy lessons ranging from savings and interest to car loans and insurance.
I’ve seen the far-reaching success as my students become more confident presenters in exhibitions in school and as they develop the kind of savvy it takes to communicate with local professionals about their own areas of career interest when they interview for their six-week internships - the capstone of the program. I’ve also seen the long-term impact of this curriculum as my students graduate, move on to college and report back that a professor was impressed with how much they were able to contribute to a business course, or how their ability to organize their goals and communicate with business people sealed the deal on a highly competitive co-op or a coveted job in the university president’s office.
CL- What have you learned from and about the expectations of the people and institutions that host Fenway students in interns?
AC- First, let me say that year after year, internship supervisors and mentors that come into the classroom and report over and over just how impressed they are with Fenway’s students who are poised, confident and professional, surprising and exciting these folks all at once. I host a great event in May, the culmination of all 70 Fenway graduating senior internships. Our workplace mentors go on stage to speak about their experiences, and they talk about their pleasant surprise with the skill level of Fenway’s interns and about a level of maturity and responsibility that often exceeds that of their college interns! The mentors who work so closely with Fenway’s students express that students must be prepared to think on their feet, have the confidence to speak up and take charge – all necessities in a fast-paced work environment.
Of course, there are challenges, but because Fenway’s students enter their internships with a year of preparation in our Ventures classrooms, those challenges are more easily addressed and provide another “teachable moment” for a student who deserves to learn an important lesson while still being supported, and better prepared for the world of work – not once he’s out in the world with no one to guide him, or worse, without the care and concern of a teacher or mentor who wants him to learn and grow.
CL- What are the important things a Fenway student learns in the course of his/her Ventures sequence?
AC- There are so many important experiences. The financial literacy lessons provide a foundation from which a young person can start out in life with knowledge of just how smart choices or mistakes will impact the future. The constant practice of “SBE” – standard business English and etiquette-- in the classroom, along with practice in stand-up presentations, allows students to feel comfortable entering and “fitting into” the work environment. Beyond these, the time spent exploring, trying on (through job shadows and interviews) and thinking about potential careers is a very important step in preparing our students for successful futures. We simply can’t expect our young people to figure these things out by trial and error once they have graduated from high school. In the end, no matter what path my students choose, they have built a foundation of skills and practice that graduates them into the competitive 21st century world of work having a least considered, observed and reflected upon just what that means.
CL- How has the Ventures program evolved since you’ve been involved with it? And have you heard from other sites interested in Ventures?
AC- I have heard from other schools, teachers and even politicians who want this kind of program in their own schools. Every adult I’ve ever described the program to says – without fail – that they wish they had this program when they were in high school (and I’m one of those adults!). Most people see it as a no-brainer and then they want to figure out how to make it happen.
And in terms of how the program has evolved since I’ve been at Fenway – let me start by saying that one of the things I love most about directing and teaching the Ventures program is the flexibility I have with curriculum and the topics I cover in class. The world, the economy, workplace trends – they all change so rapidly that the curriculum must adapt to meet those changes. Every year there are new hot-button issues. In 2006, I talked about Enron but today, my students wouldn’t know what Enron was. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of examples in our society that become teaching moments for students. Last year, I taught about the foreclosure crisis which affected students sitting in my classroom. This year, I used the example of a Kim Kardashian credit card which has consumer advocate groups up in arms. Students get excited when they hear terms or stories that are familiar – it makes the curriculum engaging. When I teach entrepreneurship, I empower the students to identify and solve a problem or need that they see in their lives and then write a business plan around it. The ownership they take of their own ideas is something no one can take away. When the idea is their own – when the topic of a lesson on interest rates reminds them of a television jingle or gets them to tune in because their neighbor’s home is boarded up due to foreclosure – kids want to learn. I just love that I get to teach what kids are already thinking about and then empower them to make a difference themselves.
CL- Final question, Amy, what would you say to other schools, perhaps not as innovative or high-performing as Fenway right now, about how they might benefit or learn from including a program like Ventures?
AC- There is no question in my mind that including a program or class like Ventures will benefit every single student who takes it. I don’t necessarily believe that everyone who works in a school would even tie this kind of learning to innovation or performance. Certainly there are priorities that must be set and goals that must be achieved in our public schools – but at a very basic level, we all know that we are trying to graduate better citizens. When we think about our students as citizens of our own society, we cannot avoid thinking about the basic skills that you and I must have – as citizens in a society – to be responsible and successful. If an educator has even considered teaching anything that I teach in the Ventures program – or, I would argue, if they have even read this far in our interview, I would say that they have what it takes to make a small change now – and maybe a larger change later – to include some of all of this kind of curriculum. I think it’s our responsibility to our students and while it’s not a walk in the park, it is just the right thing to do. At Fenway, we teach our students how to do the right thing. I think that providing all students with the experience of an internship in a local business, teaching all students how to speak for themselves, perform well at an interview, avoid mistakes that will damage their credit and basically become citizens who don’t fall through the cracks, well, *that* is the right thing to do.