Future School of Fort Smith students involved with Riverside Rides Bike Rental Shop in downtown Fort Smith near the riverfront trail system are learning life-changes skills, according to their school mentor.
Riverside Rides, located at 417 Riverfront Drive at Fort Smith River Park, opened in late May with students from an entrepreneurship class at the Future School. The business has five paid student employees, who earn minimum wage, and one student volunteer, said Taylor Gilbreth, a teacher at the school who is acting as a mentor for the students. The volunteer just wanted to help with the project this summer and will be a paid employee next year if she wants to continue with it, he added.
The entrepreneur class the students took was taught by Fort Smith businessmen Griffin Hanna and Phil White and covered various aspects of starting a business, including formulating a business plan, launching a business and marketing, and the legal aspects involved, said Boyd Logan, Future School superintendent.
White said he and Hanna worked to keep the class, which met for 90 minutes once a week during a time that is set up as academics and enrichment, fun as well as educational. Two representatives from First National Bank of Fort Smith taught the students about baking and an advertising executive talked to the students about marketing and advertising. Students also learned about human resources, cash flow and income sources, White said.
“I’m not trying to be dramatic when I say this project is life changing. In what high school setting do students usually have the opportunity to try starting a business?” Gilbreth said. “With the help of some determined community leaders, this project has come to life. The students have played leadership roles in this through the entire process, too. They are involved in all of the planning meetings and have just as much say in what’s going to happen.”
Because of the project, students have enhanced their skills in decision making, planning, organizing, and teamwork. Those skills will carry over into whatever directions the students head after school, he said. Logan said Griffin and White approached the school with the concept of the partnership with the school and because of the school’s commitment to internships, the idea seemed a good fit.
Founded in 2016, Future School of Fort Smith is a tuition-free, public charter high school centered on a personalized approach to learning via student-designed internships, personalized learning plans, and an advisor for each student. It serves students in grades 10-12. Each student is required to participate in an internship each year as part of their schooling, although students who take part in Western Arkansas Technical Center opportunities at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith can count that as an internship, Logan said.
Though the project started as a collaboration between Future School and community partners, it transitioned into a company of its own, a transition at least partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic that led all Arkansas schools to close campuses in mid-March.
“The Arkansas Department of Education has a lot of restrictions on what’s allowed for school functions at this time, so we made sure to operate this as an LLC with the consent of everyone involved. That was the original goal anyways,” Gilbreth said.
Gilbreth continues as a volunteer mentor for the students, mentoring students on customer service practices, planning promotions, communication, and just overall procedures when it comes to work. He said White and Hanna have had the most influence on the students, teaching them how to start a business, set prices, market, and adapt as they go.
“It’s amazing to think about all they have learned in a short amount of time,” Gilbreth said.
Rebecca Deen, who graduated from Future School this spring, but continues to work at the business, said she hopes the knowledge she has now of entrepreneurship and management will help here in her future endeavors. Josellin Cervantes, who will be a junior in the 2020-21 school year, said she is definitely learning a lot, especially when it comes to managing her money.
“And it’s a lot of fun,” Cervantes said. “We meet a lot of cool people who tell a lot of cool stories.”
Local businesses donated the $50,000 needed to buy the two 20 foot by 8 foot metal shipping containers that house the business and the supplies needed to start and run the shop, White said. Students have been involved in all aspects of the business, including coming up with its name and marketing plan. White said they have a strong social media presence, which helps with marketing. Donations were also made to cover the student’s wages.
“We’ve had to add to that some more to cover payroll,” White said. “There just isn’t enough usage right now.”
White contributes that to the extreme heat and people worried about getting out because of the COVID pandemic.
“It would be fine with cash flow if we only had one employee working at a time, but Griffin and I made the choice at the start to not have anyone working by themselves for safety reasons,” White said.
Once business starts to pick up, any profits will go to a scholarship fund for students at the Future School, White said.
Riverside Rides is open Wednesday-Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. with plans to stay open through Halloween. Students will make a decision later in the year on whether to keep the shop open on weekends in the winter, White said, noting part of that decision will be determined on the pandemic situation in Arkansas. For now, the student employees make sure to keep things safe, wearing a face mask while working and sanitizing all bikes after they are returned. There is also hand sanitizer available for them and customers, White said.
Students all seem to be interested in continuing with the business next year, except Deen, who leaves for basic training for the National Guard in October. White said he and Hanna hope to offer the entrepreneurship class again next year and reach even more students. Gilbreth said the program is also a plus for Fort Smith and its business community.
“If our youth have more experience in making decisions, organizing, and teamwork, they have a much better chance at becoming leaders in our community later on. When I look at the students who have dedicated their time and effort into this project, I see a positive future. For students to have opportunities like this early on, it’s a game changer,” he said.
Though this is the largest collaboration, Future School has done smaller projects similar to this. Logan said he hopes to see more in the future.
“It’s an awesome program, a culmination of the ideas of the school. We would like to keep rolling out student-run businesses like this,” Logan said.
The students are equally excited.
“There have been some less enjoyable times where we had to make some tough decisions, especially during this pandemic, but it’s been a great time overall. This group definitely wants to expand what we’re doing by adding a food truck or a snow cone stand at some point. I’m all for it, we just have to make sure we’re smart about it and have community support,” Gilbreth said.