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Kids Workshop turns elementary students into entrepreneurs


The city`s littlest entrepreneurs were gathered around a table inside Erie Elementary School, scrupulously monitoring the quality of their products.

With Christmas on the horizon, these business-minded boys and girls knew they were in the thick of the peak holiday buying season, and it would be disastrous if supply didn`t meet demand. That is the basic tenet of the business world, after all.

"Don`t talk, just work," said Ashley Hoyt, 12, chuckling as Jimmy Billingsley, 11, was chatting about something unrelated.

"Awright, awright," Jimmy said, redirecting his efforts toward coloring in a handmade Christmas card.

Ashley, Jimmy and their classmates Kailin Burch, 12, and Austin Scheuer, 11, made up fewer than half of the 10 employees who work in the Kids Workshop at Erie Elementary, a years-long project created by intervention specialist Denise Wheeler, 53.

The workshop is a mostly student-run enterprise, in which a handful of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders are responsible for running every facet of a business: production, sales, marketing, quality control and whatever else comes their way.

The students make their own holiday gifts - Christmas cards, birdhouses, dog collars and gift tags - and then market them to potential buyers, usually grandparents, parents and Elyria school employees.

"They sell strictly to staff members and personnel in the Elyria school district, and their immediate family members," Wheeler said.

But the students have to find outside investors who will provide venture capital to start up the business each year. The investors are typically students` parents, grandparents and others who are willing to risk a few bucks to see the youngsters succeed.

The initial investors - grandma or grandpa, or maybe somebody`s older brother - essentially own stock in the Kids Workshop, and at the end of the year, the investors get their initial investment back, plus a few cents in profit.

The students themselves get a cut of the overall profits, but they also donate a portion to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

"Some of it goes to payroll for the students, and a percent also goes toward different class activities," Wheeler said. "The kids get about 65 percent profit for the payroll, but the profit varies depending on how much time the students spend on it."

Last year`s biggest earner pulled in $25 for the season, while the lowest amount earned was about $7.

Kailin, a second-year employee of Kids Workshop, recalls earning about $18 last year.

"I think I spent it on toys - mostly Bratz dolls," Kailin said.

The students have to keep track of their own minutes spent working - they work on the projects during math class and other times - and they`re responsible for tracking expenses, sales and the cost of mistakes.

"If they`re working on something and they make an error and throw out that particular product, that`s less money that they have coming in because they have to repurchase those things," Wheeler said. "So they pay attention to quality and work habits, and make the product look like something someone would be willing to purchase."

In the end, they gain a keen understanding of the mathematics and marketing involved in a startup business, no matter how small it is.

"Last year`s (sales) money was about $286," Wheeler said. "They were thinking, ‘I`m going to get paid $286?` I said, ‘No, we have to subtract money for our supplies, then take some for our profit and divide it up for the payroll - and give some to charity.` "

Ashley said the dog collars are by far the hardest product to make, though the handpainted birdhouses are the most expensive because they require the most material. A birdhouse sells for about $10, a dog collar for about $4.

The product order forms are sent out by e-mail to family members and school employees, but Wheeler tries to limit the number of orders so that the students aren`t overwhelmed.

"I don`t want it to get to the point where we can`t meet the demands," Wheeler said. "They`re still kids, and they can only work so fast."

Some of the overstock, however, might be available at the end of the year for public consumption.

"We stick them in the front office, where other parents who come into the building see them," Wheeler said "If someone really wants to buy something, we could probably sell it to them, but we don`t go out and solicit business door to door."

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