By Larry Nagengast
Special to Delaware Business Times
Paul McConnell believes that education and economic development are inextricably interconnected.
So it’s only natural that the Delaware real estate entrepreneur, whose firm manages Hercules Plaza in downtown Wilmington, would find space in the building for an innovative pilot program that enables high school students to create their own entrepreneurial projects and receive expert guidance to carry them out.
“Cities and states where education and economic development are connected are the ones that are flourishing,” but it’s not happening yet in Delaware, McConnell said.
So he provided space, and $50,000 per semester in seed money, to the pilot, called Dual School, which operates out of the 1313 Innovation business incubator space in Hercules Plaza.
Thirteen students, recruited from a mix of Catholic, traditional public, magnet and charter schools, participated in Dual School’s first semester, working on a diverse set of projects. A Salesianum School senior is building a rotorless drone and a Charter School of Wilmington senior is creating a newsletter and website that will help students identify jobs, internships and scholarships that best match their interests. Two other students are developing course curriculums — one focusing on financial literacy, the other on computer coding.
The students “are trying to solve what I would call ‘the adults’ problems,” McConnell said. “I find that fascinating.”
They demonstrated and described their work recently (Jan. 30) in the Hercules Plaza Atrium, drawing an audience of about 100 people, including New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer.
“This is the future,” Meyer said after checking out the projects. “Business leaders should be looking at their ideas.”
The Dual School came together rapidly last summer, when McConnell decided he wanted to expand on the concept of the Diamond Challenge for high school entrepreneurs, a project funded by the Paul and Linda McConnell Education Initiative and run through the University of Delaware’s Horn Program in Entrepreneurship. He turned to Catherine Lindroth, founder of the Summer Learning Collaborative, and her business partner, Meghan Wallace, a onetime aide to former Gov. Jack Markell, to pull it together.
They built a planning team that included Julie Frieswyk, a Horn administrator, and Erin McNichol, an Ursuline Academy teacher who has been teaching innovation and creativity classes there in a program McConnell helped fund two years ago. That group called on a variety of resources, including staff members at High Tech High School in Chula Vista, California, whose curriculum model emphasizes individual and group project work. Zach Jones, a recent graduate of UD’s Horn Program, came on board as interim director.
“The hardest thing about startups is learning how to work with other people,” McConnell said. “We’re giving students that opportunity — to learn how to connect with others.”
The students met on Tuesday afternoons at 1313 Innovation, where they discussed entrepreneurial topics and worked with volunteer mentors who helped connect them with experts in the topics they were researching.
The program’s “secret sauce,” Jones said, consists of three ingredients: students work on projects they really care about; students make connections with professionals who are experts in their project area; and students learn how to rapidly make prototypes, and revise them on the fly, as they move forward with their projects.
“For the first five weeks, I had no idea where the program was going,” said Dorcas Olatunji, a sophomore at the Charter School of Wilmington, “but I knew I was surrounded by people who would help me get there.” Her project started out as an examination of issues related to prejudice but morphed into the development of a series of activities that could be used during school homeroom periods to break down communications barriers between different groups of students.
Dan Young, director of the new doctoral program in business administration at Goldey-Beacom College, was impressed with what he saw of the student projects. Dual School leaders “are getting the right people in the room” to help the students, who have “the energy and the interest to move their projects forward.”
Dual School, as its name suggests, is not meant to compete with existing school systems, Lindroth said. Rather, it is meant to operate on a parallel path, as what is known as a “plug-in,” a program that could be plugged into the curriculum of a public or private school, similar to other elective classes, like statistics, psychology or art history.
The difference, however, between this and other electives, Lindroth said, is that Dual School, or some entity that has not yet been established, would provide instructors for the classes — making it possible for an instructor to offer the entrepreneurship package at several different schools per semester, depending on how schools might fit it into their schedules. Students participating in the pilot program received no academic credit, and had to make up the class work they missed at their home schools, but the long-term goal is to make Dual School programming a for-credit offering at participating schools.
Officials at schools whose students participated in Dual School are intrigued by the concept but are not sure how it would fit within their programming. “It might not work for all schools, but every school has a population of students” who would benefit from it, said Eric Anderson, vice president (the equivalent of principal) at the Charter School of Wilmington.
Charter schools and private schools may find it easier than traditional high schools to accommodate the Dual School plug-in model because they tend to have greater flexibility in scheduling and approaches to instruction, he said.
For the spring semester, in addition to bringing a second group of students to 1313 Innovation, Dual School will test its model at William Penn High School in New Castle, Jones said.
Looking ahead, Lindroth and her team will be seeking grants from foundations and businesses to underwrite
the project’s expenses for the next few years.
As the program develops, McConnell wants its reach to extend more into schools that draw students from low-income and blue-collar communities, to give these youths a chance to test their entrepreneurial skills.
“We need to put these kids into the right environment with the right opportunities,” he said. “They’re just as smart as anyone else.”