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District 155 to start business incubator at Prairie Ridge High School

CRYSTAL LAKE – Prairie Ridge High School teacher Bryan Peckhart always finds it interesting to see the products dreamed up by his students.

His Introduction to Business class spent this week talking about things that bug them and how they can add value to things already out in the world, a lead up to a two- to three-week unit that works like a mini business incubator.

But Peckhart might get to head the real deal next year.

Community High School District 155’s Prairie Ridge High School hopes to become the first school in McHenry County with a business incubator.

The students will be mentored by real-life business owners and entrepreneurs as they go from dreaming up a business to pitching it to real “angel investors” at the end of the year, industry and careers department head Kevin Koeppen said.

Classes throughout the year will be taught by real business owners, lawyers and marketing professionals.

When McHenry County Economic Development Corp. President Pam Cumpata heard about the project about two years ago, she knew she wanted in.

“Education is great, but when you see it, when you touch it, when you smell it, it turns into something else,” she said.

Cumpata, who has worked with area schools to take high school students to manufacturing shows and has met with universities about the makers movement and STEM programs, has been designated the program’s community champion, charged with finding mentors and unit instructors.

No one has told her no yet.

“Solid leadership is always able to find time to give back, and the way this program is designed – the format, the topic, what it needs to be and how it’s conveyed – is so well laid out,” she said, adding many business leaders have been wondering why schools haven’t done something like this sooner.

The school still is looking for mentors, professionals to teach specific content areas and angel investors who will hear business pitches at the end of the year, and perhaps agree to partner with the students, back them financially or give advice to keep the project moving forward, Koeppen said.

Not every student will walk out of the class with a viable business – none might – but Peckhart wants every student to walk out with the knowledge of how to create a business, do the necessary research and network if an idea comes to them one day, he said.

“I’m excited that these kids are going to be getting real feedback on a consistent basis from a business professional,” Peckhart said. “I can give them feedback, but I’m not an entrepreneur, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a marketer.”

Others will learn – before spending money on college courses – whether this is the path for them, Koeppen said.

And students are considering these things when deciding what classes to take, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Corey Tafoya said. They want to know what benefits, such as college credit or preparation for a future career, they’ll get from a class.

The School District 155 Board already has signed off on the initial $25,000 purchase of the curriculum, which includes assessments and professional development for the teacher, Tafoya said. The school will have to pay a $5,000 license fee on an annual basis to maintain access to the curriculum provider’s network and resources.

The cost is on par with curriculum purchases the district has to make for any subject because other purchases often mean buying textbooks and sending teachers to training, Tafoya said, adding the curriculum is the one used by Barrington High School, which is one of the schools Prairie Ridge looked at when developing its own program.

The cost to update the space the incubator would inhabit is undetermined, Tafoya said.

The goal is to turn the space into something that “has the feel of a startup company but at the same time emulates what a modern educational environment would be,” Koeppen said. It would be a “21st-century collaborative work environment” that also could be used by English courses that do research-based assignments.

The school likely would start with one section next year and, based on interest, may expand to more sections in coming years, Koeppen said, adding the “goal is to make sure we do this right [and] not get too big too quick.”

Want to help?

Those interested in participating or helping out with the business incubator program at Prairie Ridge High School can contact teacher Bryan Peckhart at bpeckhart@d155.org.

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