Tom, a sixth-grader with high-functioning autism, often found himself challenged by communication and interactions with others. One day, he headed out with the rest of his classmates to participate in a hands-on learning experience outside of the classroom called Enterprise America. This simulated city, which encompasses the entire third floor of WCNY’s headquarters on East Fayette Street in Syracuse’s Near Westside neighborhood, gives middle school children the opportunity to play out a day of “real life” in their own living, breathing neighborhood.
All four walls of the bright and colorful 10,000 square foot center are lined with a variety of businesses, including a Town Hall, café, car repair shop and credit union. When the center is in use, it is a flurry of activity with as many as 120 children from grades five through nine conducting business in the city. As the students are busy building websites, assembling a wind turbine, designing creative signs, applying for a nonprofit grant and writing stories for the newspaper, they are also gaining an understanding of financial and civic leadership, collaboration, creativity, communication and critical-thinking – skills necessary to be successful in today’s global economy.
On this day, Tom took the position of a worker in the city’s package delivery business. He joined together with his fellow schoolmates – some serving as business and town leaders and others working as employees to earn a paycheck – all challenged to lead, solve problems and produce a thriving town through teamwork.
At the end of the day, the children held an assembly to share what they learned from the experience. When it was Tom’s turn to speak, he told his classmates, ‘I’m going to stay in school and graduate college. When I graduate college, I am going to start my own business because today proved that I can.’
“That’s impact,” said Robert Daino, former WCNY president and CEO. “That is what this program does. Many children who participate may not have a family unit or the benefits other children might have. This program helps show the children that they have what it takes to be whatever they want.”
Program facilitators and teachers are seeing these types of outcomes often. Children who don’t have the opportunity to visit worksites or colleges are learning about different careers through the curriculum and coming out of the experience more confident in their abilities to succeed in life.
“The program is helping students identify their passions and apply them in ways that would propel them to be what they want to be,” said Daino. “Enterprise America is an opportunity for children to explore what the world will be like and what they can grasp and make it be.”
Syracuse City School District students, 50 percent of whom are living below the poverty line, hold a unique need for such a supportive experience. However, lack of enrollment funding made it more difficult for these students to participate than those from neighboring districts.
We awarded WCNY a community grant to help cover these expenses. As a result, hundreds of Syracuse City School students have been able to benefit from the program.
In addition to teaching collaboration and job-readiness skills, Enterprise America is designed to engage students in principles of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), fields in which job availability is predicted to grow at a 22 percent rate over the next 10 years. Prior to their day-long experience at the center, students spend 10 hours preparing in the classroom, learning about the types of jobs available and the skills needed to perform them. Students prepare resumes and apply for jobs in the city, experiencing what it is like to be hired for the jobs they choose.
Teachers benefit from the program, too. They take advantage of the professional development and evaluation tools built into Enterprise America. These tools allow them to facilitate the curriculum and measure student achievement.
Through its television, radio and online programming, WCNY serves as the public broadcasting hub for 19 counties in New York State. When building out its new facility in the former Case Supply Warehouse, the organization established Enterprise America as an extension of its mission to educate the residents of Central New York through outreach programming.
“This is what public broadcasting should be,” said Daino when asked to describe Enterprise America. “We are able to educate, entertain and inspire people to be good citizens in our community and ultimately, in our country and in our world.”
Program facilitators see big things in store for the program, hoping that the community will benefit from children participating and ultimately choosing to stay in school and graduate, resulting in a more educated and diversified workforce.
“We’re trying to do something different and really listen to what the community wants,” said Daino. “It’s their asset and we really do want the community to raise the bar on us. Push us harder. Make us innovate more. Make us stretch so that we can deliver deeper and richer services to the community that owns it. That’s our mission. We want to do it.”