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Southern Illinois schools are preparing students for lives in business and entrepreneurship. 

Education is a large part of the Southern Illinois economy. This time of year families are spending a large portion of their monthly budget on school clothes, supplies, and back-to-school essentials. On a broader scale, the economic base provided by schools just in the form of teacher and staff salaries is significant. Looking at higher education, community colleges in our region are key not only to provide jobs, but in training thousands of Southern Illinoisans for better-paying jobs. Southern Illinois University has long been an economic driver not only for Carbondale, but for much of the region. The institution’s economic impact measures in the millions of dollars.

There is no doubt that education is big business, but what about the relationship between education and business? Southern Business Journal posed that question to three business leaders — all of whom are former teachers — and one superintendent to learn how our schools are teaching about and for business.

We asked Ken Stoner, a small business specialist with the Illinois Small Business Development Center at SIU; Cory Mohr, owner of Cory Mohr Design, a kitchen and bath studio in Carbondale; and Tom Harness, owner of Carterville-based Harness Digital Marketing to give us their insight. Stoner taught English in the Egyptian school district and most recently was a facilitator of the Jackson CEO program. Mohr taught business classes at Cobden and Elverado High Schools for six years and Harness taught at Herrin Elementary School, Unity Point School in Carbondale and at Southern Illinois University.

We also asked Pinckneyville Community High School Keith Hagene to weigh in, asking him how well business was being addressed at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Hagene: I think we can do a better job, especially at the lower levels. At the high school, we have economics and business track programs for students that are interested. They typically culminate in accounting-type courses. But I think one of the things we miss on is things like business management, small business development, entrepreneurship, things like that.

Mohr: The problem is in Illinois there are always be curriculum changes and a required focus on core subjects, which is fine. You need math and English and the sciences, but that means there are fewer hours in the day for classes like business or vocational subjects.

Hagene: We have to prioritize what things we need to do to make sure that kids get what they have to have. I think there is a way to do that and still free up some time. I think if we structured them properly, some of the vocational classes could actually inherently substitute. Take agriculture, for example, there’s enough science there that we can exchange science credit for that and it frees up another class period.

Stoner: It’s difficult to start incorporating new courses because of the schools’ necessary focuses. To start introducing new classes would take away from an already stretched-too-thin schedule. Perhaps the best answer is to incorporate business concepts into existing classes. In math classes, rather than doing more of the theoretical stuff, maybe have them do a set of financials or have them try to make decisions on the future of a business based on running a cash flow statement. You could say the same thing for English classes. Have them look at business documents or write about a business.

Hagene: Math is math, but we can do lots of little things inside a unit. For example, show students how some math would apply in the business world: Here’s how it would work if you’re doing your books, here it is applied to invoicing and receipts, let’s put it in a business spreadsheet. Just the little things to get those basic bricks in on which to build.

Harness: Let’s not put this all on education. I mean, how much are we, as small business owners, putting into getting in the schools and offering our services or talking to classes. Some of the responsibility is ours. We could offer our businesses for field trips. Bring students to us. They could visit retailers, banks or manufacturers.

Stoner: I think if we can introduce business to them early and then continue it, we’ll see a real result. It will build a knowledge base that will not only benefit those who eventually start a business, but people who go to work for others. What business owner doesn’t want someone with a strong knowledge base about business? I mean, it doesn’t just make for strong entrepreneurs, it also makes strong managers and strong employees.

Mohr: When these students first get out of college or high school, they’re going to get approached by credit card companies and they may be looking at long-term loans. They have got to figure out living; how to pay for food and other things and often, they don’t know anything about being a consumer. So it’s good to know how business functions and to understand business processes.

Hagene: I always thought that it was important for my students to have the bigger picture. Let’s say one wanted to be a machine operator or operating engineer. Even then, I think you need to have a basic understanding of how business works, about capital, about labor rates, about productivity and time so that you can help make your company as successful as it can be to help sustain your employment. It’s not just that you show up and someone else handles that. There are ways to teach kids to be vital components of any business.

Mohr: I think business should be in the core curriculum, personally and why not start in elementary schools? Keyboarding technically is a business thing because it is a business skill. But start with a few other things, too. Talk about working hard, about the idea of debt and taxes. There are basic things to talk about at the elementary level that could prep them for more later on.

Harness: There are always solutions. They’re not always easy and often it means we have to involve all of the parties. I’d love to see business people involved, even it is just one time for an hour or 30 minutes. Business involvement in the schools needs to go beyond career day.

Stoner: There’s an opportunity to do something practical across all subjects and to point to what’s really happening in the economy and with the businesses around them. That will them realize the opportunities that are all around them.

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