Enterprise Village: A New Economy For Kids, Largo

The students burst through the doors eager to start their day as managers, bank tellers, medical assistants, disc jockeys, sales associates, financial officers and a half dozen other jobs at Enterprise Village.  

Not a T-shirt is in sight.  In fact, many of the 138 students from Leila Davis Elementary School have dressed for the occasion by wearing dresses, or suits and ties.

"This is the best day of a fifth grader's life,'' says Leslie Tomlin. "They will remember this day forever.''  Deena Restemeyer agrees.  "The kids will come here sick if they have to. They have only one chance to attend and they do not want to miss it.''

Tomlin and Restemeyer are veteran elementary school teachers with decades of classroom experience. Now they work at Enterprise Village, a hands-on, interactive program in economics, free enterprise and finance for fifth graders in the Pinellas County School System.

Located at the Stavros Institute in Largo, Enterprise Village is laid out in a big rectangle with its own town square, city hall, art museum, restaurant, bank and small businesses. In a simulation of a typical business, students run the businesses. They set the prices, purchase supplies, serve customers, earn a paycheck and learn how to spend their money wisely.

The brainchild of Gus Stavros, a Tampa Bay philanthropist and business entrepreneur, and former Pinellas County school superintendent Howard Hinesley, Enterprise Village opened in 1989 after Stavros spearheaded a campaign that raised $1 million through donations from local businesses as well as his own personal contribution. 

The Pinellas County School System donated the land to construct a building (later named the Stavros Institute), designed the curriculum and continues to pay the salaries of the teachers. 

"None of this would exist without Dr. Stavros,'' says Robin McGowan, vice president or marketing and development for the Pinellas Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Dr. Stavros.  The Foundation supports a number of educational initiatives, including Enterprise Village and Finance Park, a program on personal finance for eighth graders. 

"The Foundation is the link between the business community and the educational community,'' says McGowan. "We raise funds for the programs by securing sponsorships from local businesses.''

Taking Care Of Business

Twenty-six businesses participate as sponsors for Enterprise Village.  The businesses lend their name to one of the village storefronts where the students work, making the experience as realistic as possible. 

Another 29 businesses sponsor Finance Park. "Sponsorship packages, which are structured over a five-to-ten-year period, range from $50,000 to $250,000,'' says McGowan. "The funds are earmarked for the Stavros Institute endowment, which sustains these programs.''

A program like this is very beneficial, says Craig Sher, executive chairman of the Sembler Corporation, a sponsor of Finance Park. 

"Most educators would tell you that the more relevant education is to a student, the more they will benefit and be involved,'' says Sher, who is also chairman of the board of the Pinellas Education Foundation.  "Combining economic, math and leadership education with a fun, day-long experience applying these skills makes these programs unique and highly effective.''

Within about an hour of the students’ arrival at the village, the scene is organized chaos. The line at Bank of America is out the door and the crew at McDonald’s hustles to keep up with the demand for soda and fries. Sales reps from Mix 100.7 Radio solicit ads for the DJs to read "on air.'' Clerks from CVS Pharmacy, Sweetbay Supermarket and various businesses are ready for customers.

Despite the noise level, the students are on task and courteous. J.R. Alderman, a teacher at Leila Davis, remembers when he was in fifth grade and had to attend Enterprise Village. "It was one of my most vivid memories of school,'' says Alderman. "Now as teacher I enjoy giving my kids a strong understanding of the core concepts of the village -- the work skills and decision making you need to be successful in business.''

Learning About Economics

While all fifth-grade students in Florida are required to learn about economics as part of the state's education curriculum, Pinellas is the only one mandating that students attend a hands-on program like Enterprise Village, says McGowan.

However, the program's reputation is such that several private schools in Pinellas send their students and so do schools from outside the area, including Orlando, Pasco and Port Charlotte, says Patricia Jeremiah, director of the Stavros Institute. Non-Pinellas County schools are charged a fee, which goes to the endowment. "The cost breaks down to about $16 per student,'' says McGowan.

Besides business sponsors and teachers, volunteers are also critical to the programs' success. Most are parents or grandparents who come with their child or grandchild that day. But the Stavros Institute also has its own cadre of regular volunteers, mostly retired teachers, who fill in the gaps. The volunteers "work'' in the businesses side by side with the students, helping the day go more smoothly, says Jeremiah. "We couldn’t do this without them,'' she says. 

Lynn Schew, a Leila Davis Elementary School teacher, has been bringing her students to Enterprise Village every year since it opened. The biggest change over the years has been in technology, she says. "We didn’t have computers when we started and we didn’t have debit cards,'' she says.

Now Enterprise Village has its own blog and its own Facebook page. One student from Leila Davis wrote on the blog: "Now I know why my mother comes home so tired.'' 

What else did students learn? Ronald Burkins, the manager at Home Shopping Network, said he learned that a good leader is not someone who bosses you, but one who works well with the group. An astute observation for a fifth-grader.

What’s next for the Stavros Institute? A program for high school students with the same impact as Enterprise Village and Finance Park is expected to be launched in January 2013.

"An educated workforce is one of the primary drivers in the success of any business,'' says Sher. "Our children need to be exposed to career choices at early ages and these programs can help in this regard.''

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, Fl., who shares a home office with her dog Bear and two cats Milo and Nigel. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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