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Schools that Pay for Themselves

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One hundred seventy people from 20 countries convened in late October in Cerrito, Paraguay for a three-day conference on self-sufficient schools.  The conference, co-hosted by Fundación Paraguaya and it’s sister organization Teach a Man to Fish, was the 7th annual international conference on self-sufficient schools and took place at the La Escuela Agricola San Francisco, the first ever self-sufficient agricultural school and most cited model for self-sufficient schools around the world.

The school was handed over to Fundación Paraguaya in 2002 by catholic monks who could no longer afford to run a private labor-centered school that was struggling to stay open due to a lack of funding.  Upon receiving the school, Fundación Paraguaya was challenged with how to fund a school that sat on 67 acres of land and served a student body of poverty-stricken kids from rural villages.  Fundacion Paraguaya decided to build on the schools previous education model by incorporating the use of profits from student-run enterprises into the existing curriculum.

Students at La Escuela Agricola San Francisco alternate bi-weekly from studying in a classroom to running businesses in teams.  Student-run enterprises add an applied element to learning that help students retain information and find uses for the knowledge acquired in the classroom.  Students learn how to answer business related questions that are vital to the success of their businesses, like describing equilibrium price and profit margin. Apart from learning business principles, the student-run enterprises allow students to apply other knowledge that conventional schools can often struggle with. Instead of reading about how many chickens fit in a square area, students can calculate it on the farm and make a business decision based on their observation.

The students use the proceeds of their enterprises to pay tuition, room and board, their professors’ salaries, and often have disposable income left over. The school is designed to help students succeed beyond graduation as well, by providing them with a hands-on experience of what they are likely to encounter when they enter the workforce.  Students learn how to market their businesses and themselves. As part of their exit project, students must propose and defend a business plan in front of a panel of Microfinance representatives. If a business plan is solid and plausible, the graduate may be offered a line of credit to start the business. The students also run an on-site hotel that brings in guests from all over the world.  La Escuela Agricola San Francisco is the only high school in the country that allows students to graduate with two degrees (one in agriculture and one in hospitality) and walk away with a line of credit to start a business.

Nik Kakfa was first introduced to self-sufficient schools 10 years ago as a Fundacion Paraguaya intern and now runs Teach a Man to Fish, an organization that aims to “unlock the potential of young people in the developing world by putting their future in their hands by giving them the skills needed for success through self-sufficient schools.”  He says, “every school everywhere should have a school enterprise.  Young people need to leave school prepared for success in work and in life.  Traditional academic education focuses on results rather than outcomes.  School enterprises provide a great hands on way to build new skills, gain confidence, and develop an entrepreneurial attitude; A solid foundation for future success. It’s not about how your students do while they are in school.  It’s about what they do after school that matters.”  The Teach a Man to Fish network now spans over 4,500 members in 135 countries.

Executive Director and Founder of Fundacion Paraguaya, Martin Burt says “The self-sufficient school model can be replicated because it’s like a social enterprise franchise that is based on entrepreneurship and if we were able to achieve it here in South America, we can do it anywhere else in the world.” The teach a Man to Fish network not only consists of members attempting to reach self-sufficiency, however.  A multitude of panels, discussion groups, and seminars throughout the three-day conference also placed an emphasis on any school being able to add a school/student-run enterprise to their curriculum.  Through these sessions participants benefited from valuable student ran enterprise insight such as how to administer a student enterprise in purely academic schools, how to get teachers to think more entrepreneurial, how to take full advantage of all resources belonging to schools, and how to write an effective business plan for a student-run enterprise.

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