Each year, 15 students from the Bokamoso Life Centre in the rural township of Wintervedlt, South Africa, come to the United States. They live with other students for four weeks and attend classes at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and American University in the Washington, D.C., area. To complete the exchange, St. Andrew’s students travel to Winterveldt during their spring break. While in the United States, Bokamoso students form close bonds with their host families and school community, and they perform locally, using theater and song to tell their stories. They also attend my International Development and Social Enterprise class, where they learn about social enterprise, both as a practice and a mindset, and develop their own social enterprise projects. But it’s only when they return home, and when St. Andrew’s students later visit Winterveldt, that both groups’ thinking really shifts: The problems that once seemed academic become very real. 

This past year, for example, three St. Andrew’s students, Will, Leila, and Demi, worked with four Bokamoso students to develop a social enterprise around raising chickens. The four South African students, Kgaogelo, Levy, Teddy, and Nondli, returned to Winterveldt energized by the possibility of initiating an enterprise to be funded and seized the opportunity to take a government-run course on chicken farming. When they realized that they could create and operate a successful enterprise, their efforts shifted from generating very general enterprise ideas to learning all that they could about chicken farming and educating St. Andrew’s students on all aspects of the project. One of the four, Levy, a biomedical sciences student at the University of South Africa, told me, “Bokamoso teaches about life, and this opportunity teaches us about accomplishment. Raising chickens is more than an enterprise. It is a future.”

In education today, universities are making a decisive shift toward education that is more socially minded and connected to communities. The class I teach operates on the belief that high schools, too, should be at the vanguard of change. We introduce a style of authentic social engagement that can help students develop the creative and academic acumen necessary to solve complex social problems. For schools with strong local and international ties to partner organizations and communities, this course offers a framework for making instruction more authentic, creative, and engaged with the needs of local communities. Encouraging empathic engagement in this way brings out the best in our students, allows for creative thinking, and nurtures the well-being of all involved.

From Theory to Practice

The decline of critical and practical thinking in many high schools comes from the decades-old predominance of test-based evaluation, a lack of authentic applied learning projects, and the absence of any real sustained community engagement. Progress in high school instruction will not come simply from new technologies or textbooks, but rather from creative energy and social engagement with communities beyond the classroom.

In 2014, operating on this belief, I helped create a multidisciplinary course that teaches economics, history, and social enterprise at St. Andrew’s. The school has an unusually deep tradition of leadership and service in local and global communities, and our class was able to draw on long-standing partnerships in Washington, D.C., Haiti, and South Africa to offer our students a unique perspective.

The course, co-taught by three teachers, encourages students to turn theory into practice—to work with international partners to assess needs and propose specific sustainable enterprises that can create jobs and provide monetary support to other local organizations. Each week, experts from organizations such as the World Bank Group, TechnoServe, Women’s Microfinance Initiative, Village X, the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti, Partners in Health, the United Nations Foundation, Clemson University, and a host of other partners from Haiti and South Africa speak with the students about topics such as behavioral economics, ground-based research, and human-centered design. They also provide insight into reasons that projects succeed and fail and judge students’ social enterprise proposals. Successful proposals receive money ranging from $2,500 to $4,000 from a special school fund for such projects created in honor of a former St. Andrew’s board chair.

Much of the day-to-day content for the course emerges from these social enterprise proposals. One day students are talking with partners on Skype, grappling with questions about raising chickens, and the next they are dealing with budget spreadsheets in Excel. Some days the questions are simple (“Do you know what a female goat costs in Haiti?”), and other days they are not (“If behavioral economists insist that human behavior is irrational, how are we to apply the study of economics without understanding how people behave?”).

St. Andrew's students Skype with Ithuba enterprise partners in South Africa.

The enterprises that students develop and propose are as diverse as the partners. Importantly, not all are successful, and this is where theory and good intentions collide with reality. Two funded projects from the course’s initial year fell apart as leadership changes at the project level in Haiti and South Africa unraveled the carefully structured partnerships the students had formed. The transfer of a priest by the Diocese of Haiti, for example, demolished plans for an enterprise to support midday meals at an elementary school. Students learned that perfection isn’t required but partnership is, that staying sensitive to local power dynamics may allow them to ask more careful questions, and that cultivating the initial partnership may or may not allow them to see potential problems.

This past year, the class’s second, we internalized some of the lessons from year one. The year two projects have better alignment and dialogue with partners and bear the early hallmarks of mutual learning across continents. Students learn fundamental best practices of business and enterprise along with their partners. As each project begins, they deal with developing transparent accounting practices, marketing plans, and near- and longer-term goals. Experts guide both students and partners in general finance and economics, effective marketing, and basic business planning. 

Moving Cemeteries

As an old saying goes, “It is easier to move a cemetery than to change a school curriculum.” Teaching this course is teaching from a textbook where the content constantly changes and the ink never really dries. But a few important factors have helped us along:

  1. Interdisciplinary instructors with expertise in history, economics, business, and international development.
  2. Established and trusted partnerships with local and/or international communities.
  3. An advisory board of local and international experts to advise on and evaluate projects, budgets, and contracts.
  4. Consistent interaction with partners through travel and via Skype.
  5. Support for enterprises before, during, and after they are established. Initial grants from corporate and private sources provide funds for the first year of operations, salaries, and materials.  
  6. Clearly established enterprise contracts, reporting routines, and protocols for disbursement of funds.
  7. A school and community that supports new initiatives at every level of administration and instruction.

When asked at the end of the year to say why the course mattered, one student said, “The world needs big creative ideas for small social projects that help others not only because we hope they will actually happen, but because when we work with others and for others, that in turn helps us.” Another student said he had “never realized how much responsibility we all have for making the world a more equally livable place.” Schools should be where students interact with and solve these problems. Our classrooms can and should be the nexus for exemplary academics, empathic mindsets, and sustained, meaningful partnerships that transform both students and communities.