Chamberlain High was losing strong students to magnet and private schools. More than a third empty, it had not seen better than a C grade from the state since 2012.
So when principal Jake Russell was offered a new business curriculum, courtesy of the venerable Junior Achievement organization, he thought, why not?
Three years later he presides over events like Market Day, where students line the gym with tables hawking shoeshine kits, retro candies and costume jewelry. They spend hours beforehand, brainstorming with teachers and business professionals.
“This helps us prepare for the real world,” said Alexis Martinez, 16, who was selling first-aid kits for an enterprise called Boo Boo Be Gone. “It helps me communicate with people. It works on my presentation skills.”
Chamberlain is a 3DE school, meaning 393 teens — nearly a third of the students — are fully steeped in capitalism from the moment they arrive.
The 3DE organization educates about 13,000 students in five states, including more than 3,200 in Florida. The six Tampa Bay high schools using the program will be joined by three more in the fall. And while participation is usually optional, 3DE says that Tampa’s Jefferson High has decided it will enroll all of its 300 to 400 incoming freshmen in the program.
The growth is happening despite limited outside evidence that the program is effective. Using statistics it receives from the participating school districts, 3DE reports dramatic improvement in student attendance, conduct and academic skills. And, according to data that Chamberlain High shared with the Tampa Bay Times, scores are improving as a result of the experience.
School district records, however, show mixed and sometimes unclear results.
Still, school officials see signs that 3DE may be working where other initiatives to better engage students have fallen short. At some Tampa Bay area schools, the program is seen as a remedy for disappointing test scores caused in part by the loss of high-achieving students to school choice programs.
While some school board members acknowledged the absence of independent assessments, they have not expressed concern.
“We need to take a really deep look at it,” said Hillsborough board member Henry “Shake” Washington, a former Chamberlain principal. “Something that works for one school might not work for all the schools.”
Board member Patti Rendon said she “wouldn’t mind having some additional eyes” on the program. But, having met with groups of 3DE students, she said: “Just having a conversation with them would have knocked you out of the water. These kids are able to walk out to a total stranger and, with good, concrete communication skills, talk about problem solving, about what they can do to analyze a business. I’m definitely impressed with the face-to-face results that have come out.”
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In 3DE schools, English, math, science and social studies classes have been refocused to help solve challenges posed by the likes of Home Depot and Delta Airlines. How can businesses make airline passengers feel safe lining up to board in a pandemic? How will they get University of South Florida students to sign up for a cyber security course offered by ReliaQuest, another 3DE sponsor?
In some ways, 3DE replicates the benefits of high-end magnet programs. Students move together from year to year, forming bonds with their teachers and each other. Guiding principles include collaboration, critical thinking and cultural competency.
But, unlike other magnet programs, 3DE seeks to enroll students who are typical of the school community in culture and economic status.
“We’re teaching them how to solve complex problems,” said Christina Roberts, 3DE’s Tampa Bay executive director who arrived after a long executive career at Enterprise Rental Car company. “And from an employer perspective, we’re teaching them how to do that collaboratively. This model is everything we (at Enterprise) desired in college graduates.”
A turnaround story
The name 3DE is not an acronym. Its Atlanta area originators toyed with “three dimensional education.” But “that didn’t test very well,” said Callie Majors, senior vice president of brand strategy and investor relations. So they shortened it to a name that was “sticky,” she said. “You can remember it.”
The program’s origins were even more serendipitous.
Unlike teaching innovations that grow out of staid academic institutions, 3DE happened because Robert Avossa, the superintendent in Fulton County, Georgia, was struggling with some of his high schools. Banneker High, just outside Atlanta, was on the state’s failing schools list and in danger of a shutdown.
Impressed with Junior Achievement’s interactive programs for the earlier grades, Avossa asked the organization what it would do if they had a high school to run.
Together, they devised a learning model that simulates the day-to-day work of for-profit businesses.
“I don’t think you will find a more compelling turnaround story than Banneker High,” said Avossa, now an educational consultant. Banneker’s graduation rate was 83% in 2022, up from 42% in 2013, two years before the program’s launch.
An important third component is the business world itself. Executives serve as mentors to the students and judges at their pitch contests.
Most of the costs of 3DE come from school district budgets. But corporations donate millions of dollars and that covers additional staff positions such as school-based 3DE leadership directors.
The advantages to businesses are many.
They can brand themselves to the next generation of workers. And consider the benefit, if you are Arby’s, of asking teenagers to figure out how to make the restaurants more desirable for other teenagers. That was one of this year’s ninth grade challenges at Dunedin High, where four teams took to the stage in February to present their business plans.
Their ideas were as broad as hiring young workers and as specific as sending food trucks to the schools.
“Teenagers are just lazy, to be honest,” student Brenner Casselman told the judges. ”With all the social media nowadays, they’re focused on instant gratification. They want something in their face, easy, cheap.”
The transformation does not happen without extra work from teachers.
Andres Florez, a math teacher at Hillsborough High, was recruited three years ago by an assistant principal whose opinion he respected. He admits to having been uncertain at first.
Weekly meetings with the other core 3DE teachers helped, he said.
Florez used the Arby’s challenge to teach his freshman algebra class the difference between a function and a nonfunction in an equation. He asked them to consider two types of vending machines: one in which customers chose a food item and then paid the restaurant price, and a second that accepted one price and then chose food items at random.
In 10th grade geometry, he taught them how to calculate areas as they were working to evaluate warehouse space for the Spanx apparel company.
“The kids will come into my class having been talking about warehouses,” he said. “It builds such a connection for them. It’s a lot easier for them to understand the whys.”
The weeks of study and group projects culminate in competitions that might take place in their school auditorium or in the stylish corridors of Raymond James’ St. Petersburg headquarters, where teams faced off recently for a regional pitch contest.
There were shrieks of joy from the Dunedin High team that won with Take Care, a gift box containing lotions and scented candles, and long faces from the Chamberlain group, whose Bomb Body offered a similar line of personal care products.
Overall, students say the experience helps them feel connected to high school and optimistic about their futures.
Elena Deokie, a sophomore at Chamberlain, suggested students in 3DE get better treatment from their teachers.
“They look forward to seeing us thrive in case challenges and it kind of gives them a motive to help us and inspire us,” Deokie said. “I feel like in traditional school, sometimes I hear teachers talk and say things like, ‘Oh my God, this school.’”
A look at the numbers
Majors and Roberts, the 3DE executives, said the program relies on school districts for the data it uses to report its effectiveness.
When compared to the rest of the student body, 3DE students at Tampa Bay area schools had 20% fewer students who are chronically absent and 72.5% more were reading at grade level.
But because the program is relatively new, there has not been much independent analysis outside the group of schools that first joined the program in Georgia.
The most dramatic effect was at Chamberlain, which had low reading numbers before 3DE entered the picture. In 2022, 39% of 3DE students were reading at their grade level while only 20% of other students were.
Those results were consistent with state testing data, which showed clear improvement over time in English/language arts for this year’s 11th grade class and the school as a whole.
In Pinellas, the information viewed by the Times did not show improvement as clearly.
Median passing rates in state English/language arts and math exams were not significantly different when the two groups were compared. At Dunedin High, the schoolwide passing rate in math climbed from 36% to 41% between 2021 and 2022. In English/language arts, the passing rates remained virtually unchanged at about 45%.
Leaders of 3DE said they adjust the data to paint an accurate picture of the program’s benefits. They exclude the International Baccalaureate students in both counties, as that high-performing group would skew the results.
They said school district officials have not pressed them for outside research because they have seen the benefits first-hand.
“Across every critical measure of success we are seeing progress — from engagement to knowledge gains to satisfaction,” said Richard George, president of Junior Achievement Tampa Bay.
“For me, though, when I hear a principal say 3DE has catalyzed a culture of learning and achievement among their school community, that’s how I know it’s working and what motivates us every day.”