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What Students Can Learn From Taking Financial Risks in Class

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Seventh and eighth grade students at Willard Middle School work to prepare meals to sell. (Katrina Schwartz/MindShift)
Seventh- and eighth-grade students at Willard Middle School work to prepare meals to sell. (Katrina Schwartz/MindShift)

It's not unusual for school programs to be cut -- even successful and popular ones. Often the program disappears into memory. But sometimes school supporters can rally to keep it going. At Willard Middle School in Berkeley, California, parents and the community mobilized to raise money to keep alive a cooking and gardening program at the school after its budget was cut. But the school didn't stop there -- its teachers have tasked students with turning the program into a successful small business, generating revenues to support the program. Students are learning by doing, even when that means making mistakes that cost the program money, all for the purposes of learning.

Two years ago, the Berkeley Unified School District learned that the federal funding stream it used to pay for a nationally recognized cooking and gardening program in its K-12 schools would disappear. With more than a decade to build on lessons learned, the program was adept at teaching nutrition, along with academic concepts like plant botany, cooking math and journal reflections embedded in hands-on learning. Students learned about the vegetables they grew and shared tips on preparation with their parents when they went home. Other classroom teachers even incorporated elements of gardening into their instruction.

One part of the school’s strategy to save the beloved program involves seventh- and eighth-grade entrepreneurs using their elective class to run a small catering business with the big goal of raising $20,000 for the program.

"We're trying to pilot a program where we can generate income during the year,” said Matt Tsang, director of Willard’s cooking and gardening program. To do that, students are growing and making meals and value-added products like jams, pickles and salsas that they sell to the community. "What I told them [the students] is, we don't have a manual for how we're doing this,” Tsang said. “We know our goal and they're part of this process."

Talk about high-stakes learning. The cooking and gardening program at Willard, which spreads far beyond this one entrepreneurship class touching the lives of every student, costs about $120,000 to run. The income generated by students will be only one part of any solution the Willard community comes up with, but Tsang says that despite the difficulty of the task, he couldn’t ask for a more real-world opportunity for his students to learn.


Students grow and make a meal every two weeks. Along the way they’ve been confronted with common questions of business, including how to price their products, the cost of ingredients and profit margins. They even developed their brand, appropriately calling themselves Growing Leaders, and a tagline “Hella Good,” which they felt encapsulated the youthful energy of their endeavor.

So far, most of Growing Leaders’ customers are school community members -- parents, teachers, friends of friends. But the class has already begun talking about how it can better market its services and products. Students brainstormed ideas such as reaching out to the many university students that live near the school and marketing to neighbors, not just members of the school community.


"It's important for them to understand that mistakes are good,” Tsang said. “We have a lot of kids who've been told they're failures. And so to understand that failing is a part of being successful is huge." The business venture has taught students and teachers that lesson in a big way. For example, at one meal the class didn’t make enough rice. A teacher had to a run to a local restaurant and buy cooked rice to make up the difference. "It's a little bit more real when we just gave up $200 because of a mistake we made,” Tsang said.

Another time the class had to decide how much food to prepare without a clear idea of how many orders they’d get. Willard has partnered with, a startup tech business that links cottage food makers to customers. staff members have volunteered their services to the school so that customers can pre-order meals and pay online. The students usually make and sell between 150-200 meals at each sale, but one week they got only 77 pre-orders just a few days before they needed to start making the food.

"We had to decide if we wanted to make a lot or less because we didn't want to have a ton left over,” explained seventh-grader Bode Lucero-Simmons. “We decided on 151, which I feel was a good decision. We've already sold a few other times, and all those times we had sold a lot, so we felt confident that we'd have a decent amount of people.”

Their bet paid off. By the day of the sale, orders had picked up and their estimate was close. Teachers didn’t make the ultimate decision about how much food to make; students made the decision together.

When mistakes happen, the class discusses how they might have done things differently, modeling how to improve on failure. “Instead of learning and then doing, we do it and learn from what we did," Tsang said. This action-driven approach works well for some learners, Tsang said, and adds to the school’s tool belt for reaching different types of learners.

“I think it'll help us when we get out into the real world,” said eighth-grader Elias Gutierrez. “We'll think back on this and remember the basic principles of how we have to set up a business or handle our money." Gutierrez recently transferred to Willard and loves the cooking and gardening program because he gets to work outside and with his hands. He says now he gardens with his grandma.

Gutierrez is also pretty clear that even if it doesn’t look like it, the program is academic. "When we do journal work, it’s almost as if we're in English class,” he said. “And when we're learning how to run a business, it's most like math. And then when we're doing this [washing lettuce], it's science because I'm getting to learn about these plants and how to grow them and take care of them."


Matt Tsang has been the biggest advocate for Willard’s cooking and gardening program. He has met with parents, written grants and developed the entrepreneurship elective class. He says he’s motivated by the experiences he’s had over 18 years of teaching kids who struggled in the classroom, but were at home in the garden.

“I see a lot of kids who have all this potential, and we’re not giving them the tools to get out of their current situation and be successful,” Tsang said.

He hopes this program continues to grow so he can connect students to mentors in the food industry. "My hope is this could be a pipeline so we're creating opportunities for these kids when they get older," Tsang said.


He’s adamant that what goes on in other classes is equally important, but he wants students to know that the world is a big place with lots of opportunities. If they feel they have an impact on something like a school-run business, maybe they’ll have the confidence to go out and make good choices for their own lives.

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