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'We're not those kids': BLC students create business, bust stereotypes

Five high school students at the Brainerd Learning Center started their own business selling BLC shirts with the motto #we'renotthosekids to help break the stereotypes that students at the school are bad kids. Pictured, from left: Phoebe Schuety, Macey Whitlock, Abbey Thurstin and Morgan Meyer. Not pictured: Jessica Smith. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Often subjected to different treatment than other high schoolers, a group of students at the Brainerd Learning Center want to break the stereotypes associated with their school.

"When we tell people we're from this school, they often think that we're just bad kids," 10th-grader Macey Whitlock said. "They think that I'm not a good kid, I'm not the same as them."

"Everyone just assumes we're dumb, we're bad kids, and we're druggies or dropouts," 10th-grade classmate Abbey Thurstin said.

But with newly designed apparel bearing a BLC logo along with the motto #we'renotthosekids, Whitlock, Thurstin and the rest of their classmates hope to spread their message and change how the rest of the district sees them, which is often as bad kids or "those" kids who take classes at the learning center instead of Brainerd High School.

The Brainerd Learning Center provides classes for students of all ages and a variety of abilities and needs. The Area Education Center branch, which serves high school-age kids, sees students come through its doors for a wide variety of reasons, whether it be a credit-deficient status at the high school or something else that might be impacting a student's ability to attain credits. With small class sizes, students at the AEC get to build relationships with teachers, learn at their own pace and receive one-on-one support. Some students attend AEC full-time, while others have a blended schedule with classes at BHS, too. According to the center's website, "there is never just one 'type' of students that attends AEC—a variety of students are here for a variety of reasons."

And that's the exact message these students want to convey.

But not only are they shattering assumptions with their custom shirts, they're also learning to run their own business through the Junior Achievement Company Program.

Junior Achievement is a nonprofit offering financial literacy, college and career readiness, and entrepreneurship education to students throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and western Wisconsin. Local board members Brook Mallak and James Thompson, along with Area Education Center teacher Howie Jacobs, are using the organization's company program curriculum in their high school class at the Brainerd Learning Center. Mallak and Thompson are volunteer teachers, working alongside Jacobs twice a week. The five students in the class created the logoed shirts as their very own business.

Along with Whitlock and Thurstin, 10th-graders Morgan Meyer and Jessica Smith and 9th-grader Phoebe Schuety act as the creators, managers, chief financial officers, marketers, advertisers and designers for their five-woman shirt business.

"We didn't have school-specific apparel," Thurstin said of the company's inception. "We also did not have a logo. So my brain went, 'Hey, I draw. Let's draw something.'"

About 15 minutes later, the girls had their logo.

Then came the motto.

"I've been working here about 30 years, give or take, and the 'We're not those kids' is kind of the same message I've been telling people for years. ... One of the kids here just came up with the phrase better than I did," Jacobs said.

"It's a day-to-day thing for alternative education, explaining that they're not all bad kids."

To emphasize the learning center's status as still a part of the Brainerd School District, the students kept with the Warrior colors, offering black or gray shirts with a blue logo, and incorporated "ISD 181" into the logo.

"They feel that they are not included in the district lots of times," Mallak said, "and that people don't understand that they actually are part of the district."

When these five graduate, Thompson pointed out, their diplomas will say "Brainerd High School" on them just like those who took all their classes at BHS.

"They want to start the conversation," Thompson said, "and I think this piece that they designed, this logo and this shirt, is just a nice conversation-starter."

The shirt is also a symbol of the hard work the girls put in over the last couple months and a testimony to how far they've come since class started.

"They've come out of their shells quite a bit," Jacobs said. "They started out kind of quiet, and as we've been proceeding, they've been gaining a little more momentum and doing a lot more interacting with each other and a lot more brainstorming and thinking a little more like business owners should think, so it's been really fun to watch."

Running a company comes with other learning opportunities, too, in addition to the business side of things. "We want them to learn other soft skills that are important for them to have as they're growing up and coming out into the job market," Mallak said, "such as interpersonal skills, teamwork, how you problem solve, how you critically think, how you creatively think, how you can assert a position."

The teachers also want to teach their students there's more than one path to follow after high school.

"Not everybody is meant to go to school, get a college degree, go out into the workforce," Thompson said. "Some people are meant to do something a little different, so this gives kids a little snapshot of what it might be like to be an entrepreneur, to start their own company or to be a part of something."

Even if owning a business ends up being a secondary source of income, a hobby or something the students don't pursue at all in the future.

"But at least it gets these kids to look at things differently, and that's part of the mission of Junior Achievement in general," Thompson said, "just really to expose kids to financial education and workforce development at an earlier age so that as they're growing up they start to make better decisions as far as what they want to do in life and how they want to be a part of the community."

That mission seems to be shining through in this class.

"I'm personally glad that I'm in this class because it's actually a lot of fun. It's different than a normal class," Thurstin said, noting lessons she has learned in responsibility, teamwork and simply functioning as an adult. "And it was really cool actually seeing the product in your hands."

With so many learning opportunities packed into one semester's worth of class, the girls still had one main goal, summed up simply by Meyer: "To tell them we're not those bad kids."

About the business

The #we'renotthosekids hooded sweatshirts, crew neck sweatshirts and long-sleeved T-shirts are on sale at https://wntkblc.itemorder.com/sale until Nov. 28. Greg Larson Sports, the company the girls chose as their vendor, created the website and takes orders directly, making each custom shirt as orders come in.

At the end of the semester, the students will pay whatever bills they have, close their business and decide what to do with any profits made. Their options range from splitting them amongst each other, giving them back to the school, donating them or any other idea they come up with. If any interest is generated, they could even sell the business to someone else who might want to keep it running.

"I don't think they're necessarily really excited about the money, which is good," Thompson said. "Granted, we want companies to make money, but they're really excited to tell their story and who they are, that they're not 'those' kids just because they're going to a different school."

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