This year will mark the first that Brookwood Elementary School teacher Karen Mitchel’s entrepreneurship class of second graders will have been introduced to the program as kindergartners.

Since 2017, kindergarten through second grade students at the Snellville-based school have been learning rudiments of entrepreneurship through a connection, a course that students attend outside of their regular classroom that rotates every few days. Students are taught to recognize opportunities in the classroom, apply for jobs, go through interviews and buy or sell goods and services with the school’s currency, Brookwood Bucks.

The connection was originally offered to third through fifth graders in 2016. In the beginning, teachers had no template after which to model the new connection, but it’s now become a way for elementary school students to become proactive problem solvers and engage with their communities differently.

“There’s not really any curriculum out there for these youngest kids,” Mitchell said. “We really focus in kindergarten that they have to learn a lot of the roles in the community. … I have the classroom transform into a vet’s office or a bakery or police station, so kids get to learn those roles and how those workers help the community.”

What’s happening at Brookwood Elementary School is part of a trickle down effect that began several years ago at Brookwood High School. The integrated entrepreneurship program established in schools in the Brookwood cluster of Gwinnett County Public Schools applies an earlier-the-better philosophy to the concept of entrepreneurship. In this case, entrepreneurship isn’t limited to the idea of running a business. The concept of intrapreneurship relates to how a proactive, self-motivated employee can take initiative in the workplace.

Its social impact, Brookwood High School Career and Technical Education department head Cindy Quinlan said, is potentially monumental.

“I really think that teaching entrepreneurship skills is the solution to poverty,” Quinlan said. “As a teacher, we reach out to help kids prepare them for the future. If you give kids tools to think entrepreneurially and have the ability to adapt, they’re going to be successful in whatever avenue then pursue.”

Quinlan was introduced to integrated entrepreneurial teaching techniques through a nonprofit called Real EDGE, which developed a network of entrepreneurial educators with the goal of improving economic development by instilling the entrepreneurial mindset into students. Quinlan has since trained more than 200 educators from around the world how to integrate that mindset into core instruction.

Brookwood High School graduated its “guinea pig” class of integrated entrepreneurial students in 2019 — students who had the opportunity to spend four years in the program. Quinlan, recently named to the University of Georgia’s 40 under 40 list, was first approached by city officials with Snellville concerned that without a company or industry to serve major driver of economic development in the city, Brookwood High School would have to manufacture self-made business minds. That was circa 2012, Quinlan said.

In 2016, GCPS awarded the Brookwood cluster of schools $250,000 to expand its student entrepreneurship program at the high school level to include other schools in the Brookwood cluster.

Quinlan’s influence of Brookwood High School principal Bo Ford and Brookwood Elementary’s former principal Cheri Carter that formed what she calls a “Brookwood model” of teaching.

“It’s really because of Cindy and Bo,” Jennifer Moon, third through fifth grade entrepreneurship teacher, said. “They thought, ‘Why do we have to wait until high school to teach these kids?’

“Some of these kids give up (in traditional classrooms) because they do struggle academically, or kids struggle with the language. Kids start coming out of their shells, and it makes a big difference in our upper grades.”

Entrepreneurship looks different at Brookwood High School. In a 10th-grade language arts classroom, for example, Brookwood students are tasked with reading “Lord of the Flies” and interpret author William Golding’s intentions in certain passages. The novel’s protagonist, Ralph, is elected as the leader of a tribe of boys stranded on a tropical island, forced to fend for themselves. He gives a speech after his peers choose him as their leader.

In a traditional language arts class, a teacher asks her students to identify literary devices like symbolism or foreshadowing. In Brookwood’s integrated entrepreneur class, the teacher asks how Ralph could be a more effective leader.

“How would you make changes to the speech as an effective communicator?” Quinlan said.

Entrepreneurship may be an engaging way to present traditional content to students. Studies are finding literacy rates in the U.S. are stagnant or decreasing. While there may be some language arts teachers that argue the merits of recognizing literary devices, Quinlan has found that the common denominator they share is the desire to engage students in their assigned reading.

Adding an entrepreneurial spin has made a difference, she said. Students aren’t forced to analyze a really old book, they use it to apply its lessons to their future ambitions.

“Kids want to read because they understand the application,” Quinlan said.

A business isn’t always for profit, either. The “Brookwood model” is less about making every student into a business owner and more about instilling the opportunistic mindset into students from a young age, presented in a hands-on and creative way.

“People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they’re doing,” Mitchell said.

Taylor Denman is a reporter born and raised in Gwinnett County. He came back home to seize the rare opportunity of telling stories in the county he grew up in.