At-Risk Students ACE Technical Training in Colorado

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I teach an Alternative Cooperative Education (ACE) class at Chaparral High School in Colorado that is printing its way to a bright future. My at-risk students are practicing life skills while running a digital printing shop, and with a little help from me and their state-of-the-art Roland printer/cutter, they are making their dreams come true.

Last summer, my Career and Technical Director, Glen March, challenged me to develop a business idea that would "make it real" for the ACE students. At Chaparral (part of Douglas County School District), we ask our at-risk students to participate in a traditional curriculum. With the challenges they already face, school is not necessarily a priority for them. They may drop out, go to an alternative program in our district, or finally go through GED process. They are only with me one or two periods each day, so I focus on making our lessons applicable to real life.

I tried to come up with an idea that would be interesting to all of us. A friend of mine does vinyl lettering--little things for your wall. I thought that might be a good place to start and purchased a vinyl cutter for our class.

Last September, our class worked with Sean McGraw, executive director of the Douglas County Education Foundation (DCEF), to write a business plan. Once the plan was in place, the students had to apply for jobs at their start-up company. Their application process included an interview with me and another teacher. I have two ACE classes, each with 21 to 22 students, and each class is represented by a CEO. The other members of the executive team are a vice president, a director of sales, a director of marketing, a production director, and a director of human resources.

The students started out by learning to make letters with the vinyl cutter and began producing banners for the school. Along the way I wove in life skills lessons, and reminded them that, "This is real money; we're going to produce real products and invoice real customers, and provide real customer service." That's where my vision stopped. Then the kids took over talking about how to expand the business.

Seeing the interest the students were taking in their new venture, Sean Schott from Denco Sales suggested taking the class on a field trip. We invited district Superintendent Jim Christensen to accompany the class to Fineline Graphics, a local graphics and design shop. While there, the group saw a Roland printer producing an image of a woman's face. The kids were fascinated by the size and photographic quality of colors in the image. They said, "We can do that. We should get one of those, Mrs. B!'"

The students were excited by the possibilities digital printing offered and continued discussing their ideas with the superintendent during lunch. As a result of their enthusiasm and vision, Superintendent Christensen awarded the students a portion of the money needed to purchase a digital printer from district funds. Taking the initiative, the students developed a plan to purchase a Roland VersaCAMM SP540V printer/cutter. They also solicited and received funds from DCEF. For the balance of the needed funding, the students applied for a loan from Principal Ron Peterson. In the interest of teaching a very valuable life skill, I required the students fill out a loan application and make a presentation. Mr. Peterson then had them wait several days while he considered their application--I am not sure who had a harder time waiting--and, once the loan, priced with interest, was "approved," had the students sign a loan contract. Sean Schott of Denco Sales obtained a discounted price from Roland on their new VersaCAMM.

To educate themselves on the basics of signmaking, each student was first required to produce a license plate. Once that requirement was met, production on external projects began. Other schools or offices within the district brought them ideas for banners or signs. Customers discussed their project with the sales staff, who worked closely with the design group to be sure the customer's needs were being met. A proof was e-mailed to the client, then production took over to finish the job.

With the many capabilities of the printer the ACE students were able to dramatically expand their product line. In addition to vinyl lettering and banners, they produced signs on acrylic, aluminum, wood, canvas, and other materials. They even produced art pieces and enlarged family photos. By the end of the semester, they had 80 customers and were producing graduation signs and banners for several other schools' year-end events. With the color matching abilities of the Roland their products compared well to those produced by commercial shops.

The students' final project this year was designing and producing the district's 50th anniversary banners. Our class worked with the commercial art department at Chaparral to develop designs to submit to the district office. Once a design was chosen and finalized by the district, the students had to work overtime to produce 76 banners. All the elements of our business had to work seamlessly to pull this off. The take up reel on the Roland was a Godsend because it allowed us to continue printing overnight. We wouldn't have been able to make our deadline without the Roland.

As a tribute to the quality work the ACE classes did in preparing the banners, the district added the words "produced by ACE students at Chaparral" to the design. That was huge. My students went from being "those kids" to being "these kids" who did this wonderful work. The banners were hung in July and will remain throughout the 2008-2009 school year, as a celebration of the 50th anniversary, in every school and charter school in the district.

In addition to providing great satisfaction for my students, the ACE class printing business has had a lasting effect on their career plans. Following graduation, one of my students will be working with a local company to make vehicle graphics and another is going to work in the sign industry. Several others have plans to work their way through college with signmaking and graphics work, making it possible for them to go beyond high school and study whatever they want.

Seeing the success of our program at Chaparral, five other Colorado schools have now duplicated the program. Four have brought their classes to Denver to receive training from our students. It's been wonderful to see the kids take that leadership role and train others. The students have done a great job this year, and I am so proud of them.

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