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The Early Bird gets the profit at EHS

Tucked well back in the hallways of Elma High School, a number of students are getting some hands-on, real-life lessons, while also bringing in some real-life revenue to benefit their school.

Elma’s Career and Technical Education Program (CTE) — once known as “vocational education” — has thrived so much that it recently received a gold standard for its efforts, placing among the top schools nationwide in DECA, an international association of students and teachers of the fields of marketing, management and entrepreneurship in business, finance, hospitality and sales and service.

But the bottom line for the program’s success is the real bottom line. Elma students netted the school program about $15,000 this past school year through their efforts that are a part of a couple of credited courses — business math and graphic production.

What makes these classes unique is the “laboratory” portions of each.

In the business math class, students run a snack bar and coffee stand for fellow students and teachers. In graphics production, students run a T-shirt and sign shop, making items for school use and for sale to the community at large, including providing many of the banners and signs seen around the Grays Harbor County Fairgrounds and on businesses in downtown Elma. During last year’s election to save ambulance service in the McCleary area, students made the signs for the campaign. Other sign shop customers include the Elma Police Department, the Elma Chamber of Commerce, Image Flowers, Dancers Unlimited and the Elma Fire Department.

“A fairgrounds job was just complete this week, and a lot of non-profits and small groups and businesses are customers,” said Kari Toms, the CTE teacher at Elma High. “These are learning laboratories.”

Toms says there are about 20 students enrolled in the graphics production class and about 50 in the business math class, which has gained popularity since math requirements have been boosted for graduation requirements and many college admissions. Some students turn to business math as an alternative to calculus or the like.

“It’s a lot better than the other math classes I could have taken,” said junior Matt Ellis.

But a number of students have taken the lab work to heart, seeing it as an opportunity to get some valuable experience for entry-level jobs.

“We have a handful of real, key students,” said Toms. “Some of them plan on going straight to work” after graduation.

In the labs, they learn about bookkeeping, markup, marketing and product mix, says Toms.

The snack bar and coffee/smoothie stand — aptly named The Early Bird — is located in the school’s old sewing room, which has been converted to a lively hangout during business hours. It operates before school from 7:45 a.m. until 8:25 and during the school’s “flex” period from 10:15 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. It’s run by the students with Toms in a supervisory role, but pitching in when she needs to.

“We have a handful of teachers with prepaid cards who come in every morning,” Toms said.

Besides coffee and espresso from a commercial-type machine, they also specialize in yogurt and fruit smoothies and protein shakes. Dozens of students hang out there to talk and sip on their purchased beverages.

Toms said keeping The Early Bird stocked has been a bit of a challenge because “most of the vendors stop delivering at the Thurston County line,” but the student enterprise has received excellent service from Harbor vendors such as Dairy Fresh and Harbor Pacific to stay supplied.

“They’ve been real supportive the whole way,” Toms said.

The Early Bird alone grossed about $14,000 and netted $8,000 this past year, according to Toms, and the profits are always put to good use.

First, they are used to update, maintain and acquire equipment, said Toms.

“I really, really want to get a frozen yogurt machine next,” said Toms, “but those soft-serve machines are spendy.”

Some of the proceeds fund CTE student trips to state- and national-level, multi-day competitions and conventions, where Elma students have fared well enough to earn a gold award from DECA, placing them among the top CTE programs in the nation.

Toms and three of her students — senior Angie Patton, junior Maci Shumate and sophomore Paige Kershaw — recently returned from the DECA Nationals in Atlanta, where they received their recognition. Elma was only one of 20 schools in the state invited to Atlanta.

“It’s a cool opportunity for them,” Toms said. “There were thousands and thousands of DECA kids, all dressed professionally in blazers and slacks and business suits.”

Senior Nick Camenzind, who Toms says is one of the “go-to” guys in the sign shop, has found his class and lab time extremely rewarding, learning skills he plans to use later in life.

“This is definitely one of my favorite classes,” Camenzind said. “It’s hands-on stuff and that’s all me.”