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NMSU Extension works with Zuni High School seniors on business plans for community

Visitors to Zuni Pueblo who aren't merely passing through are likely to notice that the town lacks a robust business district. Along the main highway there are trading posts and a few cafes and gas stations, but there are also many vacant buildings, and many types of establishments typically found in communities of comparable size are conspicuously absent.

Mikayla Chuyate, a Zuni High School student, stands with her promotional poster for her proposed entrepreneurial venture, Mickey's Traditions. She worked with NMSU Extension specialist Michael Patrick, as well as her teachers and others, on a business plan for a local store that would offer custom clothing items for Zuni traditional ceremonies. Her business plan was judged to be one of the top five produced by her cohort of 56 graduating seniors. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)

Michael Patrick, community resources and economic development specialist for New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, center, stands with Mike Hyatt, Zuni High School principal, and the five students whose senior portfolio projects were judged to be the best of their class. Patrick worked with the 56 graduating seniors at Zuni High School during their final semester as they developed viable business plans for potential businesses they felt might succeed in Zuni Pueblo. The students, left to right, are: Kevin Gia, Alanna Cooeyate, Matthew Neha, Tasha Sanchez and Mikayla Chuyate. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)

Graduating seniors at Zuni High School pose for a class photo. Their senior portfolio project this year involved the creation of business plans for businesses they might want to establish in Zuni Pueblo in the future. Michael Patrick, community resources and economic development specialist for New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, spent time at the school guiding the students as they explored the viability of their ideas. (Courtesy photo)

The economic plight of the community is reflected in 2010 census data: per capita income for Zunis is $10,421 - less than half the state average of $23,000. And 37.4 percent of the population lives in poverty, more than double the state average and almost triple the national average.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Zunis spend approximately 90 percent of the money they do have off the reservation, much of it 40 miles north of the pueblo in Gallup.

The pueblo is certainly the cultural hub for the Zuni tribe's 10,000 people, but it is not the commercial hub.

Michael Patrick, community resources and economic development specialist for New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, has been working with Zuni tribal leaders and educators for four years, developing ideas for improving the economic situation. Although he is involved in projects with numerous other communities around the state, he has found time to visit the pueblo at least every few months.

This past spring, Patrick was in Zuni even more frequently, working with Zuni High School administrators, teachers and students to encourage new thinking about potential business development.

This year, all of the graduating seniors were required, for their senior portfolio project, to consider their own interests, think about the needs of the community and then develop business plans for enterprises they felt would be successful there.

"One of our goals is to find ways to keep the money here in the community, circulating in the community, creating more of a demand for goods and services and jobs," Patrick said. "And this particular project, involving these high school students in developing business plans for future businesses, is the front end of a larger strategy here to try to open up Zuni and get more business and economic activity going."

In addition to getting one-on-one input from Patrick, who holds a doctorate in agricultural economics, the 56 graduating students worked with their teachers, counselors and members of the community to develop their ideas.

Harold Lee is an English teacher at the school. He views the business plan assignment, which he was instrumental in devising, in the context of his eight years living in Zuni. The lack of a thriving business community inspired him to include content in last fall's senior English classes on how modern corporations function, with particular emphasis on evolving standards of corporate responsibility.

"What [the students] had to do was come up with a business that was also responsible to the employees, the environment and the people who buy things," he said.

Patrick helped the students devise consumer surveys to assess the likely viability of their business ideas as they related to community needs, and he guided them in a detailed financial analysis of the projected costs and likely profits associated with their enterprises.

Teacher Ryan Magee, who worked with 11 of his A.P. English students on their projects, said he was impressed by the students' efforts to identify businesses that would benefit the community and fit with their own values and interests. He was one of several teachers and administrators who noted the variety of themes.

Some students went in an artistic direction, with pottery and clothing for traditional events. Others saw a need for services related to typical outdoor activities on the reservation, such as chainsaw sharpening for woodcutters and taxidermy for hunters. Food and entertainment establishments, especially ones catering to youthful tastes, were also represented, and the current lack of laundry facilities inspired multiple proposals to fill that niche.

At the end of the semester, the students presented their business plans to panels of judges, each made up of a teacher, an administrator and a local community member. Their projects were evaluated on a range of factors, including presentational style, thoroughness in addressing all of the required components, and effectiveness of their posters and written documents. Patrick was involved in evaluating the top-ranked projects.

The students who created the top five business plans presented them to a small group of school personnel, family members and community business owners on May 24 in the school's library:

Those students, in alphabetical order, were:
? Mikayla Chuyate, with Mickey's Tradition, a provider of traditional ceremonial attire
? Alanna Cooeyate, with Bubble Mat Laundry, a laundromat
? Matthew Neha, with Matt's Taxidermy
? Kevin Gia, with The Monkeys Tree Arcade and Snack Bar
? Tasha Sanchez, with Candy Cafe, a coffee and candy shop

The goal of requiring a portfolio project of seniors is essentially to have them draw upon what they have learned in their core courses throughout their high school career, according to Terri Sebastian, the school's assistant principal.

Quizzed on how they thought those academic experiences came into play, the above students agreed that they relied most heavily on their math skills, essential in working out the financial details of the business plans, and what they had learned in English classes, given that much of their project involved writing.

Sebastian emphasized that this year's Zuni High School grads are not being encouraged to skip college in order to pursue their business ideas. She pointed out that applying to at least one college was another requirement of the senior project.

But the Zuni teachers and administrators do not view the business plan assignment merely as a required exercise for students to apply what they learned in high school. Several expressed the hope that some students would decide to return to Zuni after college to start their businesses.

Lee even suggested that if one of the students didn't forge ahead on the laundry idea soon, he might take matters into his own hands.

"Maybe I'll crunch the numbers and do it," he joked. "Who knows?"

William Becker is a Zuni High School science teacher with whom Patrick has worked on other projects, including community gardening. Seeing some of the business proposals move from idea to reality is high on his list of priorities. He has been networking with foundations in an attempt to raise seed capital to create a revolving loan fund for business startups.

He is also optimistic that honey sales from the beehives he and his students have established at the school could sweeten the pot a bit. He said the half-dozen hives should produce around $12,000 in honey revenues this year.

The day after the business plan presentations, the school was visited by Hanna Skandera, New Mexico secretary designate of public education. The top five business plans were still on display in the library for her to peruse. She expressed enthusiasm for the school's approach to senior portfolios and for the results of the students' efforts.

"That's awesome," she told the principal. "Great stuff! I love it!"