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Pupils in the business of learning

In a small Pinellas County village, workers peddled their wares. The mayor strolled through the business community, encouraging residents to vote for the latest referendums. Reporters and editors were hard at work on the latest edition.

The more than 100 residents of this community were not adults, but middle school pupils from four sites throughout the county. All were part of Pinellas County Schools' Business Leaders 2000, a voluntary summer school program for teens entering grades seven through nine.

The program, in its fifth year, is designed to give pupils experience in the mechanics of the business world.

During the six-week session, pupils travel to local businesses to explore their operations; write resumes and prepare portfolios to highlight their skills and experience; interview with human resource professionals from Pinellas businesses; and work for two days at simulated businesses in Enterprise Village, an 18,000-square-foot facility designed to teach pupils about the free enterprise system.

Although most of the pupils have visited the facility as part of a fifth-grade economics curriculum, last week's experience was unique for them.

"This program is very different than the fifth-grade program," said Betty Douglas, supervisor of the school system's social studies department. "Here they have no adult working at the business with them as they did in the fifth grade. Many of the kids from the different schools have just met each other, and they must learn to work together to operate a business."

Douglas said that the program has been successful over the past five years and that many of the principles taught through Business Leaders 2000 are being incorporated into a systemwide initiative called Promoting Readiness.

"The goal of Promoting Readiness is to teach students responsibility, cooperation and how to solve problems on their own, many of the same things they learn through this program," she said.

Responsibility and teamwork seemed to be the common themes running through the program. "This program really gives them a steppingstone to prepare them for the real world," said Lori Potenza, a teacher at Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor who team-taught this summer with her identical twin sister, Lisa Tucker. "I wish every kid could go through this."

Potenza stressed that although many pupils find the curriculum enjoyable, it is by no means easy.

"Now I understand why my parents come home so stressed out at the end of the day," said Katie Linder, 13, of Palm Harbor, an eighth-grader at Carwise who was managing AT&T/Paradyne last Tuesday. "It (the program) gives you a really good idea of what's out there in the business world."

In addition to Carwise, the program was held at Largo, Meadowlawn and Azalea middle schools. Pupils participated in the field trips and other projects separately but gathered at Enterprise Village as a group.

Josette Skipper, 14, of St. Petersburg participated in the program at Meadowlawn Middle School and was thrilled to be the mayor for two days. "I really campaigned for this position," she said. "I interviewed against many other students, but this (the mayoral post) was all I was after. I even had a campaign sticker made up."

Calling the experience positive, Josette said she would love to go into politics. "I want to be the first woman president," she said.