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Inner-City Students and Wharton Professor Develop a High School Business Curriculum

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Two years ago University City High School in Philadelphia was one of the lowest achieving schools in the district -- today it is a Promise Academy offering its students a fresh start and new hope. One such success story is that of Christine Stone. At 18, she's very ambitious and will be the first in her family to graduate high school.

Enrolled in a social enrichment course, Christine is among a dozen students working with Wharton Business School Professor Keith Weigelt to launch the world's first business curriculum they have designed for high schools. Having spent six years in foster care, Christine credits the extended hours at her school and the support of staff members for keeping her out of trouble. She also sees the opportunity to work with Weigelt as a way to help bring a valuable program into schools across the U.S. "The business curriculum is a program which benefits everyone, even if you don't want to be an entrepreneur," she explains.

Learning how to position oneself above the competition and understanding your strengths and weaknesses are not only important corporate concepts; the students see them as valuable life lessons as well. As another student, 18-year-old Isaac Young explains: "I'm learning about the importance of presenting yourself. If you go to an interview, for example, you have to be confident and make yourself stand out against other candidates." Through this unique relationship with Wharton's Professor Weigelt, Young has also learned how multifaceted organizations work and the importance of working in teams. Recalling the time he told Weigelt he wanted to design video games, he says: "He asked me if I knew how to draw and I don't. I didn't realize that all companies have teams where people have different skills to make a product successful. I thought I'd have to do everything myself."

Christine and Isaac's school is predominantly African American and located in one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in Philadelphia, just blocks from the Wharton School and the University of Pennsylvania, which happens to be one of the most elite institutions in the world. For the past four years, Weigelt has been involved in inner city schools and communities teaching courses ranging from decision making to financial literacy. He came to realize that within American high schools, a comprehensive business curriculum didn't exist. "While some high schools may have accounting, marketing, or entrepreneurship classes -- none have a business curriculum," says Weigelt. He believes high schools across the country would be at an advantage if they offered his six-course curriculum students would begin in their sophomore year. "It either sets them up better for when they go to college or if they don't go to college at least when they enter the work force they'll know a lot more about business," he explains.

A Chicago native, Weigelt grew up during the civil rights movement attending the magnet school Lane Tech. No stranger to entrepreneurship, he tells students in his classes how he washed dishes and worked in his family-owned restaurant from the age of 12. He also talks about the various jobs he had before becoming a Wharton professor, such as driving trucks and working as a chef. Having grown up in one of the most segregated cities in the country, he was exposed to some of the challenges many blacks face in comparison to white Americans. Weigelt draws upon an example from Malcolm X's biography. "He predicted that white America would not give blacks an equal education and he called for America to give blacks an equal education -- that has not occurred yet, and he said that back in 1964."

Weigelt believes elite institutions such as the Wharton School and the University of Pennsylvania have a moral responsibility to help inner city communities and has taken up the task to help lead these efforts. "The government's not doing it and they've got all these other problems. I think with our resources and our wealth, we know how to step in and somebody has to in order to give blacks opportunities," says Weigelt. While he points out that he doesn't want to belittle efforts of corporations, he adds that they too could be doing a lot more like providing more role models and putting more resources towards black inner cities.

Economic divisions are something students in the class recognize. "I like that Professor Weigelt tell us we're just as smart as Wharton students. Just because I'm from the other side of the grass, it doesn't mean I should be discouraged -- I can still put myself out there and try," says Christine. Isaac adds that Weigelt deciding to work with his class is an opportunity for them to prove that inner city public school students can do something positive with their lives. "I think it's important for schools to teach kids how to be prepared for the world as well, for example realizing that there are electricity bills and mortgages," he says.

Weigelt agrees. "The thing that most people don't understand about wealth is that because of compound interest, the earlier you start to accumulate wealth the better off you are," he says. Factors such as slavery, being largely shut out of unions, the Homestead Act, and segregation have historically kept many blacks from being able to achieve the same opportunities as whites to attain wealth. Another issue that Weigelt points out is that poverty within the black community is inter-generational as opposed to whites. "Low-income whites live in poverty for shorter periods of time," he explains. Not only that but on average, blacks are falling further behind. Take for example the latest U.S. census report that shows that in 2009, the net worth of white households was $113,149 compared to $5,677 for black households.

Weigelt even draws principles from Daoism into his classroom explaining to students that they have the power to change situations by their behavior. Christine and Isaac want to create opportunities for themselves and also be role models in their families. "I have a half-sister and want to be an example to her showing that I am successful and not dependent on anyone," she says. Isaac is the youngest in his family of seven siblings. He will be the second to graduate high school and admits he is often made fun of by some for attending school. "I want to be the first in my family to go to college and show that I can have a better life than my parents. My niece is 13 and really looks up to me, I want to show her the value of going to school," he adds.

For questions on the high school curriculum, contact Professor Keith Weigelt: Weigelt@wharton.upenn.edu.