Franchising in the Classroom

High school students learn about business by running a Sign-A-Rama franchise.

By Devlin Smith

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Mark Gniewek arrives at Northern High School at 7:30 each morning, giving him 30 minutes to meet with students and other teachers before his first class begins. While his colleagues' days and nights are filled with creating lesson plans and grading papers, Gniewek's are spent sorting through invoices and sales figures.

For more than 10 years, Gniewek has been teaching entrepreneurship classes at the Detroit high school. Last year, the school, whose entrepreneurship program is funded through a Kellogg Foundation grant, bought a Sign-A-Rama franchise to provide students with real-life business experience. "We use Sign-A-Rama as an example for such things as starting the business, marketing, advertising, production and finance," explains Gniewek, 39.

From 8 to 11 a.m., Gniewek teaches entrepreneurship classes to 9th, 10th and 11th graders. While he's in the classroom, which is connected to the Sign-A-Rama, two students in the 10th or 11th grade come in each hour to work in the shop. They receive class credit for their time at the franchise but aren't paid.

Northern is currently the only high school participating in this Sign-A-Rama Scholars program, though the company is interested in signing up more schools to own and operate a franchise.

A graphic designer, the sign-making shop's only non-student employee, comes to work at 9 each morning and leaves at 5.

Four 12th graders are paid to work in the Sign-A-Rama each afternoon. These co-op students completed several entrepreneurship classes and went through an application and interviewing process before earning their positions. "We were very professional in how we did our hiring," Gniewek says. "A lot of kids weren't ready for that."

The four student/employees handle everything from sales to production. One of the co-op students works from 11 to 4, the others from noon to 5.

After Gniewek's last class lets out at noon, he is free to give his full attention to the franchise. He reviews paperwork, makes phone calls and creates assignment lists for the student employees. Three times a week, Gniewek and a few of his students drive throughout Detroit, making cold calls to drum up business.

Sometimes potential customers assume they can get free signs from the student-run business, a misconception Gniewek must clear up quickly. "We've had a few people call and expect us to do this for free, thinking this is a school and we're doing it for practice, but we have to buy the materials we use for the sign," he says.

Most customers, however, understand this Sign-A-Rama is both a classroom and for-profit business. Gniewek often makes follow-up calls to customers for quality assurance and feedback. "If a customer we gave an estimate to doesn't want to buy a product from us, we try to contact them and find out what went wrong, why they chose somebody else," he says. "Most of these places help us out; they'll tell us."

Gniewek's day ends at 4; the shop closes an hour later. The Sign-A-Rama doesn't operate on the weekends, but it does follow the school's varying hours of operation during holidays.

Since its opening last May, Gniewek is proud of how beneficial the Sign-A-Rama has been for Northern High School. Profits from the business, which rang up $20,000 in sales in the first three months of this year, are going toward school improvements, including the possible refurbishment of the school's auditorium. Most important, Gniewek has seen the franchise's positive influence on both the students working in the business and those taking his entrepreneurship classes. "[The co-op students] are making money, and the other kids in the class see this," he says. "It's kind of a motivational tool for them to try to get into one of these positions."

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