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Creating Entrepreneurs of Learning

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Illustration of woman herding fish

Fish Herder no. 2 by Susan Sorrell Hill

Sometimes what helps kids most is a goal and a paycheck.

“I like coming to school now… I feel happy about it… I have a personal finance class. I have my own bank account now. I just feel like half of these kids don’t have that opportunity. I feel special. I feel great. Every time I go to that class I am just, like, so happy I just think about my future 24/7.”

Nicki is describing the effect of a radical reinterpretation of a classroom to a university researcher. No one in her family went to college, and she goes to school in one of the most violent zip codes in one of the most underfunded school districts in the nation. What changed her opinion of school is that Nicki earned a spot in the first year of the Leadership, Identity, and Finance Training (LIFT) Fellowship, a program that capitalizes on the awakening of teenagers to find a unique niche in this world. For an hour during the school day, LIFT Fellows receive: 

  • A real problem to solve
  • Coaching around leadership responsibilities
  • Instruction in personal finance
  • Paychecks into real bank accounts 

The goal is to create motivated, happy, and eager learners by creating an environment similar to that of the best of the real world.

During the interview, Sandra chimes in: “If I was this person that could help somebody and medicate somebody if they really need it to open up and let it all go, then that’s just great! That is perfect. Somebody could be in a midlife crisis and I am helping them.”

Sandra, also a LIFT Fellow, may very well reach her life goal of becoming a psychiatrist. Sandra, Nicki, and another friend, Ellen, founded a peer-counseling group for girls with the help of a school social worker. Ellen wants to be a criminal psychologist while Nicki wants to re-create the foster care system of America. All three girls are already making a meaningful difference in the lives of the students who attend their club. All three girls view their high school education and their club leadership as perfect preparation for their future goals. All three girls represent exactly what high school education should really look like—and are paid for their work in the LIFT program.

With two years of a grant totaling almost $25,000 from the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders, I created the program to help 25 students become addicted to the idea of their future success. The first step was to give students actual problems to solve in our school. With their support group Sandra, Nicki, and Ellen tackled the unfair gender norms girls face. Other students addressed problems that led to the creation of a board game club, spoken word team, student newspaper, and several other student-led programs. 

The next step was to change the pedagogy. Usually a student arrives on the first day of school to a predetermined curriculum. With the exception of an intense personal finance unit, students in the LIFT Fellowship decide the lessons they want to receive based on their emerging career interests.

The third step was to do more than dangle grades over their head. Instead, students established real and potentially lifelong bank accounts and deposited actual paychecks they received for their contributions to the school. We used most of the grant for paychecks, close to $600 per student

As this yearlong experiment continued, our classroom began to look more like an office at Google. Students led their clubs, managed their bank accounts, and usually opted to receive more lessons about business management and finance. Sandra comments, “You have 10th and 12th graders and they help each other out; sometimes the 10th graders help the 12th graders. Nobody is perfect. And that is what you have to understand. We are all like a family in that class…  You have that positive energy throughout the day and bring it to your club.”

I administered periodic surveys with the help of a university and found that student satisfaction and self-described inspiration maintained high levels throughout the year. They worked tirelessly to recruit students for their clubs and to improve their program. They learned how to manage their peers and keep track of data. They monitored a checking account, a college savings account they could not touch until the age of 18, and a personal savings account they could use on any short-term future goal they had: college textbooks, a car, or maybe an apartment. Students made routine transfers into their savings account, and were given more freedom in how they used their debit card connected to their checking account. 

When Ellen is asked if the program changed her, she responds: “Outside of school… I feel like I am more responsible now… It’s like, in this club we have to take a lot of responsibility… I am going to have to go on my own path and there is nobody there that I am going to be following.”


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