PUBLISHED: 6:22 PM on Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Students learn small business skills selling local produce
From soil to market, Montessori adolescent students are learning to build business skills. The youngsters are finding out about the complexities of running a small business by selling home-made pies and rhubarb sauce.

"Part of the Montessori program curriculum is helping students develop a sustainable micro-economy, a small business," said Debbie Chalmers, who co-teaches the adolescent program with Dayna Weiler. "We are really focused on a land-based economy using local products and products from the land."

Kristin Price photos
  Volunteer Catherine Fritz (far left) helps eighth grade students Catia Petruzzelli and Corwin Kelly assemble the ingredients for rhubarb sauce. Corwin is wearing an Alaska Grown sweatshirt, one of the products they are selling.
A study of geography and botany are woven throughout the micro-economy unit to tie the curriculum together.

"The students looked at the vegetation and the trees and the type of plants that actually grow in this climate, and also studied the watershed," Chalmers said. "Experiences on and of the land are the essential core of the program. The idea is for students to bring their real lives to school and not put school in a bubble that happens between 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. from September through May."

Part of the micro-economy curriculum is coming up with potential small business ideas. Volunteers Kim Hope and Catherine Fritz are helping students work out the details.

"Our kids have a lot of good ideas and its very process-oriented," Chalmers said. "The volunteers are taking them through the process of asking what steps do we need to take to be successful and turn the ideas into reality."

Said Weiler: "Adolescents think big. If they're going to think big we're going to support them. We'll let them try it and think it through and do the research (to see if) this be turned into a business and make money."

The rhubarb project promises to be the beginning of an endeavor called Juneau Grown that students will be working on for years to come. Fritz, who serves on the Southeast Alaska friends of Montessori (SEAFOAM) board, is working with the kids to organize the undertaking.

"Right now the pies and jams are being made mostly at home with families. Eventually we hope to be growing rhubarb, and harvesting local berries and maybe even growing some of our own. We hope to plant raspberries," Fritz said. "We're also selling Alaska Grown logo merchandise with permission from the Alaska Department of Agriculture."

  Seventh grader Serena Partlow stirs a pot of rhubarb sauce.
A community garden plot donated by the master gardeners association will be the initial venue.

"The kids worked really hard to clean our plot this fall, so next spring we'll get out there and develop that," Chalmers said. "Were looking at developing a compost pile and maybe some cold frames so that we can start growing vegetables early in the year and have them ready for fall. We hope to come up with certain products and improve our skills, making the product better and better more marketable each year."

On a recent visit to Mendenhall River School a group of students could be found cooking up a test batch of rhubarb sauce with Fritz. Students chopped apples and rhubarb, following Fritz's recipe for rhubarb sauce.

"We had a sampling last week in the classroom," Fritz said. "We served it over frozen waffles. It's also wonderful over ice cream."

Seventh grader Serena Partlow peered into the steaming pot as she stirred

"They're learning the recipe and they're also learning how much raw material is required to cook down and actually make a jar," Chalmers said. "They're looking at how much they have to spend on the produce and how much they can sell it for and how competitive the market is out there."

In September the kids spent three days and nights camping out at the Community Garden learning what it means to raise food in Juneau.

"It's very hard just to get this much rhubarb," Partlow said, wiping her hands on her apron. "We worked on mulching the beds. There were eight huge beds and we had to mulch them all. It was hard!"

The students sold the home-made pies and jams, along with the Alaska Grown merchandise, at the recent Farmer's Market and Harvest Fair. They'll also have a booth at the upcoming Public Market. The money the students earn is to be used on a spring arts experience, Chalmers said.

"Sometimes we go to Haines or Skagway and we hire local artists to teach as a kind of reward. The ideal is that it is self-supported by the money the students earn during the year."

The ideas even extend to the up and coming Montessorians.

"The elementary program is actually establishing the roots for this kind of work, and planting the seeds," Fritz said. "The upper elementary class has a project coming up. They're going to be studying and planting bulbs. Later in the winter they'll force them, and decorate the pots and then sell them just before Valentine's Day."