It may be a virtual enterprise, but the students behind Bake-ology at Susan Wagner HS on Staten Island definitely mean business.
The four-year Virtual Enterprises program gives students authentic, skills-based business experience that prepares them for careers. “I’m able to communicate with professionals, be in a business setting and be confident in myself,” says Camille, Bake-ology’s chief executive officer.
But Susan Wagner was one of 61 city schools encompassing 149 CTE programs that lost all their federal funding for the 2019–20 school year after New York State abruptly changed its approach to distributing federal money it receives through the Carl Perkins Act. Before, any CTE program in the process of applying for state approval received a share of Perkins funding. Starting in November 2019, only programs approved by the state received funds to comply with new Trump administration policy.
For Susan Wagner, that meant a loss of almost $60,000, which covered equipment, supplies, travel and other expenses.
“We’ve been selling fruit snacks to pay for everything,” says teacher Rachael Monaco, who leads Susan Wagner’s program. “A bus costs $495. The students know how many fruit snacks they have to sell to pay for a bus. It’s a financial lesson.”
Students manage the day-to-day operations of Bake-ology, which caters to people with restrictive diets. They create business plans, develop products, identify competitors and markets, attend trade fairs and, using real-world industry and virtual industry data, project sales and balance the company books.
When they represent Bake-ology outside their classroom, they dress for success in business attire, and never sneakers.
Monaco coaches them so they look sharp and their presentations are sharp. “Even the little things are ingrained in them,” she says. “They’re crisp and clean, their shirts are pressed, their shoes are shined. And they stand tall.” After all, Monaco says, it’s a “professional business competition.”
After a regional competition in December, they approached the judges to shake hands and show their appreciation, confidence and fitness for the corporate world.
“We definitely go above and beyond,” says Deanna, the virtual company’s advertising manager, “because Ms. Monaco tells us to.”
The Virtual Enterprises program aligns career education with academic standards-based education. In fact, the graduation rate at the city’s 47 CTE high schools was 85.5% in 2019, a full 8 percentage points higher than the citywide grad rate of 77.3%. Sukhraj, the chief financial officer of Bake-ology, has already won a scholarship to Long Island University, one college that offers priority applications to students in the program.
The program also allows students to identify a potential career path. Rinea, who works in the human resources department of Bake-ology, has learned she wants to teach in a virtual enterprise program. And sometimes, students learn they’re not suited to business at all. “I like this class. It’s supportive and we do a lot. But it’s not something I want to do for the rest of my life,” says Aleksandra, an aspiring veterinarian.
The program is a lot of work and takes a lot of time, students agree.
“It’s not a 90-minute class, it’s a lifestyle,” says Damyn, Bake-ology’s sales manager.
“We’ve all been together for four years with the same teacher, so we‘ve created a tight bond,” says Aisha, the chief operating officer. “These people are my family.”
Monaco started the program in 2011 and teaches all four grades. She took an intensive five-day training to begin and constantly attends professional development.
Ninth-graders study business ethics and 10th-graders learn computer applications.
A teacher for 30 years, Monaco has two master’s degrees. But she was teaching before the internet, and she remembers the day in 1989 when an administrator asked if she knew how to use a computer. “I’m going to learn,” Monaco said. And she did.
“I am self-taught in computer applications,” she explains, “and when I don’t know something, the kids know.”
Eleventh-graders study entrepreneurship, learning teamwork, gaining leadership skills and writing business plans.
The seniors either create a business or further develop an existing one. After three years, a business must be either rebranded or replaced.
“In senior year, I don’t teach, I facilitate,” Monaco says. “The students have total ownership. I want to be part of what they’re doing, but I have to let them go; I have to step back. They want to do it themselves.”
Chapter Leader Lillian Palladino says Monaco “is an experienced and dedicated educator who teaches with her whole heart and soul. You can see that dedication shining through the faces of the students she works with and the quality of their projects.”
At the regional competition, Bake-ology’s oral presentation team, supported by workers behind the scenes, got a perfect score.
“We spent hours going over everything. It came down to knowing all we could about our business,” said Andrew, the marketing manager.
There’s an abundance of mentorship by Monaco and the older students, and the skills they learn are useful in other classes, in college and on job interviews.
But some important lessons aren’t planned — like how to cope with the sudden elimination of vital funding.
“We’re on our own,” Monaco says, “and the kids are making it work.”