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Adopt-A-Class and Teach What You Know

Patty Alper, CEO, The Alper Portfolio Group

Not long ago, a student said to Patty Alper, "You know, I feel like there's nothing I can't do. I feel like I’m a puddle of water on the floor that’s just expanding."

The student was part of a National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) class in a Washington, D.C., high school that was adopted by Alper, CEO of The Alper Portfolio Group, and Phil McNeill, managing partner of SPP Mezzanine Funding. NFTE teaches entrepreneurship to low-income young people. Alper and McNeill were serving together on the NFTE executive board in 2001 when Alper conceived the Adopt-A-Class program.

"It started in 1998 with my giving seed capital to NFTE students that would launch them into business," said Alper, whose family established a charitable foundation a few years earlier. "I studied Jewish theology and learned about Maimonides' eight-degree hierarchy of tzedekah. (Tzedakah means "justice" in Hebrew but is commonly translated as "charity.")"

In the twelfth century, Maimonides wrote:

The highest degree [of charity] exceeded by none is that of the person who assists a poor man by providing him with a gift or a loan, by accepting him in a business partnership or by helping him find employment. In a word, by putting him where he can dispense with other people's aid. Which means strengthen him in such a manner that his falling into want is prevented.

"So," says Alper, "I had two converging things happen. I had some funds to think about giving back, and I had to do some soul searching about priorities."

She also recognized how entrepreneurship had changed her life. "I wasn't a great student in school," she says. "It wasn't until I was thrown into the business environment and had to sign on the dotted line that I went for the A-plus."

Seeking One-on-One

When Alper donated the seed capital in 1998, she required a letter back from each student explaining how they spent the money, what they learned and how entrepreneurship might play a role in their future.

"Each year for two years, I got wonderful letters," she says, "but, truth be told, I wanted more. I got on the NFTE Greater Washington board and then on their executive board. But I didn‘t want to be on the board level. I wanted to work with kids. So I launched Adopt-A-Class and asked Phil to join me in adopting my alma mater, Woodrow Wilson High School."

Alper knew that the "been there, done that the hard way" business stories they could share would augment academic learning and enhance what a teacher with 30 pupils could accomplish.

"We went once a month and coached the kids," says Alper. "We would bring in speakers and work one-on-one with students, helping them translate their business ideas from theory to practical application. That year, our students won first and second place in the NFTE region-wide business plan competition and went on to New York to compete in the finals."

At this point, Alper was completely engaged. She wrote a proposal to NFTE national headquarters offering to step off the board to build the program. The first year, she recruited five adopters to share their knowledge with students through a minimum of five classroom visits and financial contributions of $10,000 per semester. The funds provide students with seed capital, a wholesale buying trip, business cards and "bizbags" filled with books, calculators and receipts, as well as a stipend to the classroom teacher for the extra work involved in leading an adopted class.

Writing to thank NFTE for the opportunity to take her students to New York, instructor Deborah Higdon said, "That one experience has taken the class to another level of understanding business concepts. Many people have ideas about how to teach students, but you have truly put ‘your money where your mouth' is. Because you did, you have made a difference in the lives of young people."

Controlling Their Own Destiny

"I'm certain I get much more out of this program than my students," says adopter Dave Parker of Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin, Oshinsky. "I cannot exactly put my finger on why and how that is. I just know it's a good thing."

After four years in Washington, D.C., the program has grown to 20 adopters with an 80 percent retention rate. Alper isn't surprised that most of the schools winning region-wide business plan competitions are adopted.

"We all sit in the stands rooting for our kids to win, just like moms and dads who want their kids to win at soccer," she says.

Others are rooting too. The Washington Business Journal has offered discounted subscription rates for students in adopted classes and held Awards Recognition Breakfasts to honor adopters.

Alper is thrilled that teachers, adopters and community leaders are supporting the program, but nothing touches her more deeply than its impact on the kids.

"Harvard did a study of NFTE, which talks about the lack of control most of these kids have in their daily lives," she says. "I feel entrepreneurship gives them some sense of control over their own destiny."

And, she has stories and letters from kids to prove it.

Take Clarence Cross, an NFTE student and graduate of Wilson High School, who used his experience starting a donut business to earn a scholarship to Syracuse University, where he's majoring in business and communications.

"This opened my eyes that in America, it's anyone's game if you're an entrepreneur," he says.

Alper would like to see entrepreneurship taught in every school in the country and is doing her part to make that goal a reality.

"It's an amazing high to realize that I’ve helped show people a way to give back meaningfully," she says. "I never don't want to do this. I would love to see a marriage of business education and philanthropy involving every corporation in America. Teach what you know. What could be more rewarding?"

 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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