Niskayuna fourth graders get down to business for good cause

From left to right, fourth graders Matthew Choi, Owen Rutnik and Jack Swinton sell puppets to classmates. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)From left to right, fourth graders Matthew Choi, Owen Rutnik and Jack Swinton sell puppets to classmates. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — If you think the faces of business are looking younger and younger these days, it’s not just you. In Niskayuna, some of them are only 9 or 10 years old.

And what’s more, business is brisk, as Hillside Elementary School’s first-ever entrepreneurial fair recently proved.

Kids from kindergarten to fifth grade filed in and out of fourth-grade classrooms on June 5, clutching dollar bills and quarters while they made tough purchasing decisions. Cupcakes baked in ice cream cones, sold by a trio in matching pink chef hats and aprons? Sock puppets overflowing from a shoebox? It was awfully tough to choose, made tougher as some of the fourth-grade vendors sold out of their products and had to close up shop.

“We’ve been busy this morning!” one fourth-grade teacher, Chris Lasher, shouted over the din of children shopping in his classroom.

And that’s good news. In addition to being an educational project for the fourth-graders, who formed business partnerships, applied for grants and loans from their parents, wrote business plans and marketed their projects, the bustling makeshift marketplace also benefited the community. All the students’ proceeds were earmarked for the school’s backpack program, which sends food home over the weekend for students whose families are struggling.

Lasher and another fourth-grade teacher, Carol Herrington, traveled with other colleagues to Washington D.C., last year after Hillside won the distinction of Federal Blue Ribbon School. It was there that they hatched the idea for the entrepreneurial fair.

Keynote speakers at the conference spoke of schools that wrapped in learning with community service.

“It made us think, ‘What can we do?’ ” Lasher said.

So together, the fourth-grade teachers wrote lesson plans that would lead to an end-of-the-year bazaar of handmade crafts and goodies. They read “What Do You Do With an Idea?” a picture book by author Kobi Yamada that ends with the main character learning that an excellent idea can change the world. Then, they set out to make sure their students learned the same thing through their own experiences.

“This has exceeded our expectations,” Lasher said, watching as a trio of students sold off their last few baked goods. There was a second fair planned for the evening that parents could attend, but it looked like the goods available might be pretty scarce after all the other Hillside grades had come through.

In total, the students collected more than $3,000.

Owen Rutnik, a bespectacled businesskid with the bearing of one much older than 10, worked with two other students to sell handcrafted sock puppets from behind a table that looked like it might usually house a reading group, on quieter afternoons.

“We come up with ideas and we make businesses,” he said matter-of-factly, as if this were something anyone who had graduated the third grade could do.

Owen said the toughest part of starting a business was getting everyone to agree on one idea. He also volunteered the suggestion that it might not be best to launch an enterprise with one’s best friends, since they can be distracting . . . sound advice from a respected leader in the local sock puppet market.

Lasher said the key to getting the students to perform so impressively was deceptively simple: in short, never underestimate them.

“When you challenge them, they can do wonderful things,” he said.

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.