One of the strengths of the Fort Mill School District's career cluster-based high school curriculum is the real world experience many of the classes offer.
Students in Renita Rochester's Virtual Enterprise class learn how to run a business by doing just that. They interview for positions, market and sell products and services, make budgets, track revenue and expenses and interact with virtual companies run by other high school and college classes around the globe. They even have to manage budgets for themselves based on the virtual salary their virtual company pays.
"I took this class for the experience," Vice President of Advertising James Hollingsworth said. "I wanted to learn how to work in a team, like in the real world."
Many students in the class share Hollingsworth's desire for real world experience. Many of them, such as Vice President of Administration Jessica Byrd, hold down jobs with retailers and restaurants, but see their futures somewhere in the white collar business world. They see the Virtual Enterprise course as a first step in that direction.
The Virtual Enterprise course was rolled out last year. The first class chose to set up a firm that sold business attire, but the first thing the new class did was change product lines to communications services. Students researched several product lines before deciding on offering business and personal communications through mobile and landline phone services. They also market eight different mobile phone models along with the service plans.
"It's something no other Virtual Enterprise company was doing, so it was really hard to argue against it," Rochester said.
Rochester, local business professionals and other school faculty interviewed the students before hiring them for specific positions in the virtual company, called Visionary Inc. Those hired have been running every aspect of the company and are graded on its performance.
The class had to apply for a virtual startup loan of more than $300,000.
Visionary Inc. sells its services and products to other Virtual Enterprise companies, and in turn purchases everything from gas and groceries to clothing and office supplies from those same companies.
Students receive a virtual salary from the company that goes into virtual bank accounts from which they pay rent, buy groceries and cover other living expenses - just like adults working in the real world.
"The kids have to have a sense of ownership," Rochester said. "This is a capstone course where they get to apply all the skills and concepts they've learned in other courses."
"I tell them everything is virtual except the grade," she added.
In addition to bringing in revenue, the students also learn how to run an office. They created an employee handbook and a company newsletter. The class is divided into several departments - administration, sales and marketing, advertising, finance and human resources.
The class also learns how to work with other industries by working with other career clusters within Fort Mill High. Students taking Web design classes helped Visionary Inc. set up its Web site on the S.C. Virtual Enterprise Network site (www.scven.org). Graphic Communications students printed and bound the handbook and are printing the monthly newsletter the class designed.
"It's the hardest course I ever taught, but it's the most rewarding too, because all their other teachers did their jobs first," Rochester said.
Only a handful of high schools across the U.S. use the Virtual Enterprise program, but Rochester's biggest lament is that once students move on to college, there isn't anything similar offered anywhere in the nation at that level to continue to reinforce the lessons learned in her class.
"They go from running a business back to sitting in a classroom taking notes for four years," she said.
Still, the class "looks good on a résume," Advertising Manager Michael Kozlowski said.