Reading and writing and tax returns.
Those are the lessons to be learned at Aspen Heights Elementary School in Red Deer, where a school program puts business ownership and banking on the curriculum.
For an hour three times a week, 224 students from kindergarten to Grade 5 trade their books and markers for market day, where they run their own businesses and government in a pint-sized version of the real world.
“They’re learning how to be good leaders and how to get the jobs done that they need to do,” says Allan Baile, co-ordinator of the Aspen Heights MicroSociety.
The microsociety concept connects classrooms with their communities to help kids discover their entrepreneurial skills in real-life settings. Now in its eighth year, Aspen Heights is home to 20 different business ventures, from the Mad Lab, where students can conduct science experiments – for a price – to the Wellness Centre, where they can pay to play games and sports.
The Penguin Avenue café serves breakfast or lunch and Jane A Smoothies is a student favourite. There’s Worm Wranglers, a joint venture where three student owners grow plants; others include an award-winning bottle recycling depot; an outdoor garden that produced almost 45 kilograms of produce this year; and Moose on the Loose, a used clothing and toy store.
This year, Aspen Heights added a working debit machine, courtesy of long-time sponsor Servus Credit Union. Students earn “stingers” that they can spend at local businesses, but only after they’ve paid their taxes, banking and other fees.
Baile says he’s watched the entrepreneurial spirit take hold since the program began.
“They’re starting to come up with a lot more of their own ideas. There are way more owners. Before, it was all managers,” he says.
The elementary entrepreneurs must come up with a business plan and apply for a loan from the Servus Aspen Heights branch.
“Our students are learning that they can aspire to be the owners and managers of business. There is quite an entrepreneurial spirit right now amongst our students,” Baile says.
Aspen Heights even has its own stock market, where students can invest in eight ventures that offer shares. Some make money; others do not. A theatre company and woodworking venture have gone bankrupt, along with a community radio station.
“That is the real world,” Baile says.
Andrea Irwin, a small business adviser and team leader at Servus Credit Union, says the program has obvious benefits for any future entrepreneurs.
“Any time you can teach kids about business and real life experience, practical to the real world, I think that’s great,” Irwin says.
It can also give children confidence, a huge factor in business success, she says. “When you own a business and you’re selling your product or your service, you’re essentially selling yourself.”
The lessons learned at Aspen Heights are the same ones that work in the real world. Servus advisers also help grown-up would-be entrepreneurs create solid business plans that include identifying their target market, calculating cash flow and projecting income and expenses, she says.
Servus can also help aspiring employers identify the “soft costs” and common hurdles that can pose a problem for small businesses.
Irwin says business owners must also surround themselves with a great team of professionals who will help guide them, including a banker who is there to advise them on a financial plan from the beginning and beyond.
“That’s what we’re here for,” she says. “We’ll sit down and help with the business plan. We’ll talk it through and maybe help them think of things they hadn’t thought about.”
Small business is an important part of the economy, Irwin says.
“It’s really important for us to build a good relationship now and make sure they’re on the right track, to give them the advice they need and help them grow. And then we’ll be there along the way,” she says.
“Most successful businesses you see started out with one or two trucks or one produce idea and then they grew.”
Or, as in the case of the Aspen Heights school program, a really good smoothie recipe.