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School sees shirts as business opportunity

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WINNEBAGO, Neb. - The first T-shirts haven't even been designed or printed but already teachers and administration are excited about the potential of the silk screening business at Winnebago High School.

Tired of continuously buying T-shirts for athletics and extra-curricular activities, the school decided to make its own clothing instead. A $15,000 grant offered by the Education Service Unit #1 of Nebraska was used to purchase a screening machine and dryer and this equipment, in addition to saving the school money, will permit the students to learn skills associated with operating a retail operation once production begins.

Joining the staff at the high school this year is Mary Anne Hovland from the economics and accounting department. One of four teachers involved in developing the program, this entrepreneurship opportunity was the selling point for her choosing Winnebago.

"We're starting a business from the ground up without a 'kit in a box,'" Hovland said, adding the possibilities are "endless."

The machine itself is quite simple to operate and has four screens that permit multi-colored patterns to be imprinted onto shirts, bags or other flat objects. Ultimately the students will incorporate their own ideas and ready-made pictures from ClipArt, a software package, in drawing the designs.

Besides the need to have financially-acute students, there will also be an emphasis on utilizing the school's talented artists and clothing designers. By drawing upon numerous departments, students will learn about teamwork and functioning within different departments.

Another staff member who will assist in overseeing the Winnebago Entrepreneurship Program is Jean Knapp, who has taught at the school for eight years in the family and consumer science department. For her students with the gift of putting pen to paper, their ideas might be seen as more than theoretical.

"They'll have in-class instruction and then they'll go apply what they learn," Knapp said. "The kids have the opportunity to simulate a real business and instead of reading about accounting, they can do the procedures."

Because this operation will be starting from scratch, Hovland, Knapp, Dale Mette, an art instructor; and Joani Hegge from the alternative education program will handpick the first dozen or so kids to initiate the program. These students will have the laborious task of research and development, the often unheralded groundwork which frequently determines success or failure (although any struggles will also be viewed as a learning tool) of a business.

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"This is the stuff every single company deals with when they open up their doors for a new business or idea," said Knapp.

Before starting production, Hovland stated another $8,000 is required to equip the designated workroom with a sink and to purchase a computer with appropriate software. She estimates another two years will pass before the silk screening business generates net profits but whatever losses do occur, they will be less than if the school just continued to buy printed shirts anyway.

By being manufacturers and wholesalers, the business will be able to pass on the savings to its customers. Also, without any overhead or salaries, this for-profit entity can afford to charge less for their product.

"Once we feel confident we can take it out of the school, that's our goal is to start marketing by the spring," said Hovland mentioning it will be the students, not the staff, who will be running the operation. The teachers' role will be to coach these "employees" but not to do their work.

Hovland and Knapp shared a laugh when it was envisioned about how the students will be "burning the midnight oil" trying to complete a rush order. Emphatically they pointed out this will be an activity that's comparable to any other after-school program in its time commitments. Besides, through their research it will be known how quickly and how large an order can be filled.

Of the viable markets, one is other schools. After quality measures are taken for Winnebago's own teams, there are varsity programs in the area that could benefit by ordering from another school and the teachers believe this is realistic.

Longer term possibilities include moving into an outlet in the soon-to-be constructed Ho-Chunk Village that's across the road. Because this commercial development is located on Winnebago's main street, Highway 77 that leads to Omaha and Lincoln, the location offers more visibility of the students' talents that otherwise might not be seen by the public in the school itself.

Ultimately it's hoped this business will create summer jobs for the students in the retailing, designing and financial components.

"Not only will it be recouped in the dollars and cents but I think the kids who participate will get valuable information that will be lifelong skills," Hovland said.