Documentary highlights local youth-preneuers

Michael Perez, a 16-year-old entrepreneur who sells exotic pet snacks, finds himself on the cutting edge of a trend: a national effort to introduce entrepreneurship education into the high school curriculum.

Last summer Perez, a sophomore at John A. Ferguson High School, took a National Foundation for the Teaching of Entrepreneurship workshop where he learned to create a business plan and launch and market his own business. The business plan -- for a pet day-care service -- eventually won him a national prize and led him to his create his current venture,

Tailtimes, which he operates out of his parents' dining room, is an online retailer of exotic pet snacks -- from chicken-flavored doughnuts to fortune cookies with canine-tailored messages such as ``a dog wags its tail with its heart''.

Now Perez may be able to add a TV credit to his résumé.

Producers for These Kids Mean Busines$, a PBS documentary about youthful business owners, sat in on a teacher-training workshop sponsored by the NFTE here and followed the newly-minted instructors into their first day of classes. Filmed in the summer of 2006, the documentary, which will air Sept. 25 on WLRN, hop-scotches between New York and Miami and features an interview with Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Rudy Crew.

Perez will have to wait until then to see if he makes a cameo appearance.

Meanwhile, his business has been pulling in $50 to $100 a month -- hardly enough to tempt him to quit school to work, but sufficient to interest him in taking a second look at subjects he once shunned.

''Math has never been my forte,'' he said. ``But since taking NFTE, somehow I've ended up taking classes with a lot of math.''

And that's the secret of an entrepreneurial education, said NFTE South Florida Executive Director Alice Horn: It's more than just about learning to make money.

''By bringing math to life and getting them to read and write business documents . . . all these things lead back to academic learning,'' she said. ``It's a great way of connecting the dots for them.''

Also benefiting from the real-world experience are a group of four young women who call themselves Les Dames de Chocolat and produce chocolate-dipped fruit.

The four -- Cassandra Collazo, Dalila Flores, Tiffany Fuentes and Jennifer Montano -- took part in NFTE programs at Turner Tech and were top finishers in local youth competitions. That has earned them the right to compete at the Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge in New York next month.

''I'm very pleased about the confidence [the other chocolate ladies] have in me to organize everything and make the final decisions,'' said Fuentes, the chief executive of the budding business.

A study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that after children took NFTE courses, interest in attending college increased 32 percent, occupational aspirations increased 44 percent and independent reading increased 4 percent.

NFTE began offering courses in Miami-Dade County a year and a half ago. Since then, more than 2,100 students have gone through the training, and the organization plans to expand into Broward and Palm Beach counties, Horn said.

One of the program's biggest backers is Crew, who will be giving the keynote address at the premiere of the documentary at WLRN studios next Thursday.

''We are realizing that Miami Public Schools is the centerpiece of the economy for this entire region, and to that extent, entrepreneurship has to be part of the curriculum,'' Crew said in a statement promoting the event.

What interests Harvey Berkman, an English and reading teacher at American Senior High in Northwest Miami-Dade County, is that his students are engaged here and now.

Berkman, who took the NFTE training and is featured in the documentary, currently has about 30 seniors in his NFTE class. He said he's seen the course give once-shy students more confidence, as they present business plans in front of their peers and other adults. And he has seen students that would be be reluctant to open a book devour information about their competitors and market research.

''If you can get some of these kids to read anything -- even the back of a ketchup bottle -- that's an accomplishment,'' he said. ``NFTE seems to be working. . . . I no longer have to fight with iPods, cellphones and apathy.''

El Nuevo Herald Reporter Elena Kenny contributed to this story.