In recent years, UR has seen dynamic growth in nearly every facet of its mandate, from new research buildings to larger endowments. Beginning in early 2006, however, UR returned somewhat to its original grassroots progressivism when it began a joint entrepreneurial venture with Thomas Jefferson High School, an inner city school with a troubled history and worrisome prospects for the future.
The project, titled “Merchants of Hope: An Education in Entrepreneurship,” is a significant and determined effort by the Rochester City School District to work with UR in affecting a radical revision of TJHS’s entire curriculum.
“Merchants of Hope” has been on the books for nearly two years. After a year of research and preparation, it became fully operational during this academic year.
As its first order of business, the program fundamentally revised the curriculum of TJHS’s seventh grade classes, department by department, in order to more closely embody the principles of good entrepreneurism.
These principles include developing leadership skills, identifying and seizing opportunities, which are applied to both business and life in general and taking calculated risks.
Underpinning these principals are three basic themes: lateral thinking, perseverance and passion. Next year the eighth grade curriculum will also be revised, followed by the ninth grade curriculum and so forth, as the pioneering class progresses through the ranks of the school.
One of the project’s main objectives is to teach entrepreneurial thinking. Though similar projects are sprouting up around the country, no program is quite like TJHS’s.
The difference lies in the school’s revised curriculum. Elements of entrepreneurship are incorporated contextually into each subject by that subject’s teacher. More general entrepreneurial themes are incorporated into overall layout and operation of the different courses in relation to one another.
However, no course series is specifically devoted to entrepreneurship, as is the case with some schools. Therefore, students aren’t sidetracked from their core coursework, such as math, science, etc.
With this structuring, the school escapes the oft-quoted criticism that entrepreneurship training at such an early age is not only distracting but also counterproductive.
UR Senior advisor Beth Olivares heads the project, which is funded by the RCSD in conjunction with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The latter has been funding the multimillion-dollar Kauffman Enrepreneruial Year Program at UR for almost three years. UR itself does not directly fund the program.
The program’s dedicated teaching staff is currently comprised of five teachers. An additional team of instructors will be hired annually for the next five years to facilitate the transformation of each of the other grades. Several school district officials are also involved with the project.
Also included in the staff are a number of UR students who volunteer as tutors and mentors. In order to introduce TJHS students to college life, they are often brought to the UR campus to participate in a variety of activities, ranging from pumpkin slingshot experiments to actual college classes.
Seventy-five students are enrolled in the current year’s entrepreneurship program and recruitment for next year’s class has been very high.
“[The program’s main goal is to] increase the school’s test scores, reverse the incidence of truancy and lower dropout rates over time,” Olivares said. According to Olivares, the school’s current benchmarks in these areas are considered unacceptable.
“Teachers are being taught to empower students to think of themselves as owners of their education and to take a proactive interest in learning,” Olivares said.
Due to the infancy of the program, no statistics, such as test score or dropout rate variations, were available. Just as well, the program is expected to take several years of implementation before it can make a measurable impact. But the prospects are good.
“The project has a lot of promise, its integration was seamless, students are very enthusiastic and the student body has generally responded to the program positively – we expect big things in the coming years,” Olivares said.
Singh is a member of the class of 2008.