By Jennifer McDaniel, for the Lincoln Sentinel
A new program at Lincoln High School is not only giving students a chance to gain real-world experience, but an opportunity to pay it forward.
The program, Paw Print, is a screen-printing business operated solely by high-school students. Led by business instructor Nikki Flinn and journalism instructor Jason Curtis, students are in charge of every aspect of the enterprise – from business and sales to final billing and invoicing.
But that isn’t all. All printing, graphic design and production services are also overseen by students.
“The main reason that we decided to start the program is the benefits that the students will gain from a class like this,” Flinn said. “The students are learning real business skills, workplace and communication. The students are learning to trust each department to complete their task so they can do theirs. Each student has a job that they are responsible for, and many of the jobs are intertwined with each other. Without one student doing their job, an entire production can fail. That has taught our students some powerful communication skills.”
But among the lessons learned, Flinn said, the most powerful are those about giving back.
“For every product made, the students are going to give back $1 to either the school, a program, the community or an organization in the community that the students will choose,” she said.
The idea was sparked after Curtis and Flinn considered ways to expand their existing programs. It would take some time, but eventually, the two would decide on a viable business idea.
“I was at the point where I was thinking of ways to add to the newspaper and yearbook that my classes produce,” he said. “I think, at the same time, Nikki was thinking about her business program. At some point last year, we both were talking, and we both realized we had the same goal – to create something at LJSHS that our students would enjoy doing, they would learn important college and career goals and learn the importance of giving back.”
As the two continued mulling over ideas, they attended a workshop focusing on a screen-printing business.
“We loved the idea, and at that point, we just started thinking about how to actually start the business,” Curtis said. “At this point in time in Kansas, we knew we were not going to be able to ask the board and (USD 298 Superintendent Kathy) Robertson to loan or give us $12,000 to start the business. Public schools don’t have much extra money, so we knew we were going to have to be creative about funding. So, we focused on grants…”
After searching out potential grant funding, the two started submitting applications earlier this year in the hopes their idea would be partially subsidized.
“After writing the grants, we just waited and kept our fingers crossed,” he said. “Both Nikki and I thought that our business plan, and what we wanted to do, was good. But once we started hearing back and receiving the grants, I think we realized that we had something great, and we better not screw it up. We received over $14,000 in grants so far.”
Among those awards was a $2,000 grant this fall from Voya Financial as part of the 2016 Voya Unsung Heroes awards competition. Curtis and Flinn were among 100 winners from across the country selected from a group of more than 1,350 applicants. The two Lincoln teachers will now compete with other finalists for one of the top three prizes – an additional $5,000, $10,000 or $25,000.
In its first year, Curtis said about 20-25 students are enrolled, and are split among three class periods.
“It is a huge process for our students and even the teachers involved to manage something that is bigger than one class period,” he said. “We have had to learn how to communicate and are constantly improving the business flow and paperwork aspect.”
“If you think about it, our students are having to learn all the aspects of how to use the equipment we got. That is a lot to learn. Each machine has multiple things to learn, and then you add on top of that learning how to run a business. Students are learning how to be sales people, how to order products, how to design the jobs, how to fill out an invoice. This is a student-run business, so everything that a business owner would have to know, our students have to know.”
Only nine weeks in, Flinn said the program has not only been popular, but appears to be a success.
“Many school organizations, community organizations and private businesses have already used our business for their screen-printing needs,” she said. “We have also started our vinyl business, which has taken off as well. I am very excited to see what the next one to two years bring for our students. The success and support so far has been awesome. I think this will open up even more opportunities for Paw Print to expand their business in the future.”
Currently, the business offers screen-printing services for T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, bags and pants as well as customized vinyl banners, signs and window clings.
“(We can also) apply vinyl to other merchandise like plastic cups, hats, Yeti® cups, really anything,” Curtis said. “We also can print posters such as designing team or the senior posters that you might see at LJSHS. We can design and print wedding, birthday or graduation announcements.”
Because the business doesn’t have a payroll, Paw Print can pass along the savings to customers.
“The students do the work, so we are able to offer items at a lower cost,” he said. “There is nothing different between what we do, and what you can get from any other printing place. Our product is not poor quality, and I am proud of what we do, and we continue to improve,” he said. “Every item we sell, $1 goes into a separate account that we are going to give back to the school and community in some way. The students will decide. We are (also) going to create scholarships for members of the business. We want our good fortune to spread, and give back because we are pretty lucky to be able to do this at our school.”
Although Flinn and Curtis are still in the process of training students and fine-tuning the operation, their ultimate goal is to have students manage the business with little input from their teachers.
“I would say deciding to start the project and write all the grants that we did, we knew it would require a lot of work on our part,” Curtis said. “But, and I think Nikki would agree with me, we had no idea how much focus this business would require. We have since realized how much of us the business requires, and are ironing out the issues so that the students take more control of the business. This is a business that we want our students to take ownership in, to be proud of, to care about.”
For more information about Paw Print, contact the high school at 524-4193 or by email at [email protected].