I knew early on that I wasn’t college-bound. I was a gifted student in elementary school and had always tested near the top of my class, but by the age of 14, I realized that my employment and income were more important to my struggling single mother than good grades and SAT scores. When I joined DECA, an organization for business students and future entrepreneurs, I found my niche and my academic salvation.
DECA (formerly Distributive Education Clubs of America) is an international organization for student leaders following career pathways in marketing, finance, hospitality and management. Participating students apply classroom learning during community outreach campaigns, in school-based enterprises like student stores and in competition against other members in all 50 states and 8 countries. Any school offering courses related to those pathways is eligible for membership, assuming administrative approval and the ability to pay membership dues, which can be as little as $250 a year for a chapter.
I became the chapter president in my senior year of high school, started the school’s first student store and parlayed the skills I learned into a successful 20-year career in retail management and as a small business owner. I eventually completed my degree and decided to teach, hoping that I could share my experience with the next generation of professionals.
During my first year teaching high school, I asked my principal for permission to start a DECA chapter. He asked what it was. We were a newer school and he clearly saw that this would benefit the kids. I built a model that would self-fund through a new student store, selling snacks, drinks, school supplies and spirit wear.
The kids took the lead. My first chapter had 16 students who, by the end of the year, had taken their classroom learning from a business and marketing course to create a resume full of work experience. They had classroom knowledge and practical working experience in sales, customer service, logistics, distribution, cashiering, writing professional communications and interviewing. These skills served them well in finding summer jobs and internships, and applying for scholarships.
Career technical student organizations like DECA, Future Farmers of America (FFA) and Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA), all serve students along pathways of career readiness in tangible, contextual and indelible ways, which are inimitable in a standard classroom setting. The training they provide in adapting to and overcoming challenges in real-time and real-life scenarios, effective communications and professional behavior serve not only kids who are headed directly into the workforce, but give college-bound students a real advantage.
In California and elsewhere, there is a push to find instructional practices that help students solve problems, work collaboratively and contextualize their learning. Many of these practices still take place at a desk in a classroom. Career technical student organizations have been doing this for decades with great effect. So why, then, are fewer than 75,000 of our 1.8 million California high school students active with these groups?
As a teacher, I have seen my students flourish and grow in our program, speaking in public, working with local businesses and applying the skills they’ve learned in class. One of my graduating seniors this year was accepted into the exclusive Global Management Program at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley. The program is ambitious and rigorous. In addition to the general coursework, students are trained in cultural understanding, financial services, communications, social sector solutions, foreign affairs and management consulting. My student came back from her orientation beaming and ambushed me with a hug and a big thank you. When I tried to deflect credit, she interrupted me and said that every one of the cohort members was an alumnus of DECA or Future Business Leaders of America. Knowing what I do about the students’ experiences in these organizations, I was not surprised.
The DECA chapter my students and I founded is still the only active chapter in Placer County. That’s a shame. We must ensure that parents, teachers, administrators and districts know that these opportunities exist. While different states have varying rules regarding starting a chapter, my students and I started a chapter with the $250 we fundraised. It was as simple as visiting the DECA website, completing a few forms, getting administrative approval and sending a check. Schools can also use funds from a number of grants available, including monies allotted from Carl D. Perkins grants, one of the principal financial sources for states when it comes to career technical education.
DECA saved me and others from graduating with little purpose or direction and it gives my college-bound students a competitive edge in program applications, university classrooms and post-graduate employment. Consider how many more students could similarly benefit if greater emphasis was placed on ensuring that all of our kids received training in the 21st century skills they will all need in the workplace.
The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.