LARGO — The students walked into town square wide-eyed, brimming with anticipation. They wore colorful dresses, suit jackets and ties, peering into storefronts with near-tangible excitement to start the day.
They had come to Enterprise Village from Safety Harbor Elementary to work their first job, deposit their first paycheck and learn what it looks and feels like to have a job. Where else can you do that as a fifth-grader?
This month marks 30 years of Enterprise Village, a Pinellas Education Foundation program meant to mirror the workings of the country’s free enterprise system. More than 400,000 students from counties in and around Tampa Bay have visited in that time, taking with them memories of a unique, hands-on experience that is hard to find anywhere else.
“A lot of people think fifth-graders aren’t ready to learn about the job market, but you’d be surprised,” said Enterprise Village director Patricia Jeremiah-Pittman. In nine years leading the program, she has seen it give thousands of students a “clearer picture” of what it means to be part of a working economy.
Before their visit to Enterprise Village, students go through a special three-week curriculum at school. It’s delivered during math or reading class, depending on the teacher, and covers topics like budgeting, business management and community participation.
They learn to write checks, pay bills for things like electric and water, vote, donate to charity and read the newspaper. They also apply for their first job after taking a “career inventory” that gives them an idea of their skills and strengths so they know what position might suit them at Enterprise Village.
A student might be a host on the Home Shopping Network, a cashier at McDonald’s, a bank teller, even the mayor. Some work in the village’s public works department. Others manage stores like Kane’s Furniture and CVS Pharmacy, which sponsor the program. Most of the businesses work with each other in some way, often requiring monetary transactions the students must track.
“You see them start to understand budgeting and saving, citizenship and their impact on the community," said Jeremiah-Pittman. “They see that they have a role in that — not just here, but in real life."
Annabelle Fredriksen, 10, always knew she wanted to be mayor of Enterprise Village. She likes to help people, so it seemed like the perfect job, she said. She spent the early November morning visiting businesses in the village to take a population count and writing a speech to address her constituents.
In a storefront nearby, Peyton Howell spun around in his chair, bopping to the beat of music playing through speakers around the village. As disc jockey of Mix 100.7 radio station, he prepared to read on-air advertisements submitted by students at other businesses for a $4 charge.
“I’ve always wanted to DJ in my life,” the 10-year-old said. “It’s just so exciting. Without me, there’s no music at all. There’s no mix. There’s no 100.7.”
Meanwhile, Serenity Crawford, 10, was getting ready for the lunch rush at McDonald’s, which sits in the center of the village. Through the morning, kids could buy snacks, like popcorn, fruit gummies and soda. But now they were lining up for cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets, and she was working the cash register.
Students are paid three times a day at Enterprise Village, making for long lines at Bank of America, where they can make deposits, manage their checking account and withdraw cash to spend at nearby stores. But teller Eliana Just, 10, was calm and collected as she greeted her classmates, punching numbers into a computer behind the counter.
“Without this job, people wouldn’t have money in their bank accounts,” she said. “Then how would they buy things?”
A few doors down from the bank, Hudson Melchert, 10, stood near the front of the village’s Rays baseball store, trying to get some business. It was halfway through the work day and he had only two sales — a poster and a bracelet.
“If the price it too high, people won’t buy it,” he said. “If it’s too low, we won’t make any money."
Rami Rashid, 10, was having the same problem as manager of Kane’s Furniture. So he cut the price of jumbo pencils by 50 percent and wrote a message to customers on a whiteboard outside: “Amazing new Veteran’s Day sale! Only at Kane’s Furniture!”
Similar signs popped up outside other businesses as the day went on, with some employees looking to maximize their profits stepping into the square to urge passersby to stop in. For sale were stuffed animals, bouncy balls, colorful cowboy hats, stick-on mustaches and more.
Watching kids make decisions about how to price merchandise, as well as when to spend versus save their money is exciting, said Cross Bayou Elementary teacher Michele Sacco-Eanes. Working as a volunteer at the village’s DITEK surge protection company, she saw how Enterprise Village puts every student on the same playing field.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a good student or a struggling student,” she said. “It’s all the same when we’re working here together, putting into action all the math and social studies skills they learn at school.”
Another volunteer, Rania Rashid, 37, came to be there for her son, Rami, the manager of Kane’s. She went through Enterprise Village herself in 1992 and has never forgotten the experience. She called it her “favorite field trip ever.”
Others have returned to the village as adults, too. Some remark that it has gotten smaller over time when really, they just grew up, said Leslie Van-Horn, lead resource teacher for the program. The memories they share are vivid and specific, proving the power of the hands-on education the village provides.
“It’s like Christmas morning here every day,” she said. “No one ever, ever forgets their day at Enterprise Village.”