By Mike Marsee
Amber Florence’s first year as a teacher could easily have been her last.
Florence was hired to revive a struggling business program at Harrison County Area Technology Center, taking the job with the knowledge that the program would be dropped if its numbers didn’t improve.
Less than two years later, the program has become a shining example of how a business program can fill a need in career and technical education.
“She singlehandedly resurrected the program,” said Betty Montgomery, the business and marketing program consultant at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). “Her principal said, ‘I never knew we could have a business program like this here before.’”
Florence said keeping the program alive started with getting students interested, then continued with explaining its relevance to them.
“Business is associated with everything you do,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter what career path you take, you need to be organized, you need to have computer skills, you need to be able to function financially.”
That speaks to why Montgomery didn’t want to see the business program at Harrison County ATC go away. She said she first heard of that possibility in a meeting with Principal Nicki Jones and an advisory committee at the school, which serves students from four districts.
“I talked about the employment demand data for Kentucky, and business services is in the top five high-demand industry sectors,” Montgomery said. “With this type of data indicating that we need to recruit students in these career pathways for business services, I couldn’t support closing the business program there.”
The program was in danger of being discontinued due to low enrollment and low student interest in the program. The previous teacher had left the school, and Montgomery said the vacancy needed to be filled by the right kind of teacher.
Florence had never been a full-time teacher. A Harrison County native, she had worked for 15 years as a nurse and had owned businesses. She received a degree in elementary education and worked as a substitute teacher before she was asked to serve as a long-term substitute in the health science pathway at Harrison County ATC during the 2015-16 school year.
“I was right across the hall, and I loved it here. I loved the environment, I loved the kids, I loved everything about it,” she said. “When I heard the business teacher was leaving, I asked the principal, ‘What do you have to do to get that job?’”
Florence began moving quickly along the path toward an alternative certification at the end of the school year, which led to things like finding out on a Friday that she needed to take the Praxis teaching exam the following Monday. She was hired on the day she learned she had passed that test.
With the support of her principal, Florence began retooling the program to make it more attractive to and more practical for students. She leaned heavily on Montgomery, who began mentoring her and connecting her with other business teachers who could help her.
“She listened to everything, soaked it up like a sponge and just rolled with what she needed to do,” Montgomery said.
Florence’s first-year courses included accounting, financial literacy, digital literacy and entrepreneurship. She added an advanced entrepreneurship course this year, and all eight of her courses are part of the business pathway and are dual-credit.
She seeks out training in areas where she needs it and is using resources such as the H&R Block Budget Challenge. At Montgomery’s urging, she also is using the curricula and support available from MBA Research to all business teachers in Kentucky, one of 31 states participating in the national consortium.
“This curriculum is developed directly from business and industry input. This is a curriculum that business and industry folks say students need to have,” Montgomery said.
Florence also turned to business and industry leaders in and around Cynthiana for help, and they visit her classroom frequently to talk with her students.
“We’re on the chamber of commerce and we go to their luncheon once a month to meet business leaders in the community,” she said. “I tell my kids, ‘I might not know everything, but I know somebody that does and I’ll get them on the phone.’ We couldn’t do it without them.”
In her first year, she helped her entrepreneurship students launch an embroidery business. This year all of the students in the class have launched their own enterprises to sell goods and services.
Josey Brown, a senior, started a business through the class in which he does home repair projects such as replacing drywall or mending fences. He said while he knew he could do the work, he got the confidence that he could turn his skills into a successful business in Florence’s entrepreneurship class.
“I’ve learned that I can actually do it and it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” he said. “The toughest part for me was advertising, because I’m kind of shy and it’s not easy for me to talk to people. She tells us how to market to get our business out there and how to put our money back in the business to produce more profit.”
Florence had been told that the program needed 75 students to avoid being dropped, and she had no trouble reaching that threshold during the 2016-17 school year.
“Nobody knew the new teacher, and I had 30 kids on the roster at the beginning of the school year,” she said. “So I started recruiting and I got up to 85 students. This year, we have 125 students in the program.”
There also has been a spike in interest in the school’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter, which has grown from 17 members to 48.
Florence’s program was showcased as a best practice at the most recent Kentucky Association for Career and Technical Education summer conference,
Now that the program is safe, Florence said she wants to continue to refine it to ensure that her students get the best possible experience.
“We’re giving them an opportunity that they might not have otherwise. One of them is going to be the next Paula Deen or someone like that,” she said. “There’s some impressive things coming out of this classroom.”
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