PALMETTO -- Juan Jimenez hopes the attractively priced pet rocks at Rocky's Pet Barn will yield high profits for his fledgling business.
The 8-year-old entrepreneur and his classmates at Mills Elementary School are getting hands-on experience as part of the annual economics project in which students create a business plan, manufacture a product, chart production numbers, determine a price point, build a storefront and write and a shoot a commercial.
On Dec. 18, the last day of school before winter break, students will set up their storefronts in the cafetorium. The goal is to be the first business to sell out as the other third-grade students get a chance to shop.
Since pet rocks are low maintenance, Juan thinks they'll be a hit.
"They can buy a pet rock, and they can play with them and they don't have to take care of them very much," he said.
One of the group's business partners, 8-year-old Garius Branch, said pet rocks are special.
"They're not like normal pets. They don't go to the bathroom and stuff," he said.
Garius and Juan are two members of a four-member team running Rockey's Pet Barn. All 12 third-grade classes at the school participate in the annual project, which started when the school opened. Each classroom creates four businesses so students will have the option to spend their funds -- fake, paper money -- at 48 businesses. Each business creates 100 products to sell.
"This year is going to be the biggest year yet. I hope we fit," said Andrea LaBranche, one of the third-grade teachers at the school.
While working up in Gainesville, LaBranche and a coworker started the economics project. When LaBranche moved to work at Mills Elementary in 2004, she brought the project with her.
One of the reasons the project is such a success, LaBranche said, is student "buy-in." She creates a manager's manual for each student that really just contains math lessons related to the project. But the students are excited when she tells them to get their manager's manual out, because it feels official and important.
"It's what makes it fun and memorable," she said.
Math is one of the most obvious components of the project. Students price out their productw by determining the relative cost of materials and the manual labor involved in putting the productw together. Although some projects may be low-cost, if it takes a lot of work to put together, that will drive up the prices.
As the students work through production -- which is completed in class with materials donated by teachers, parents and community members -- they graph their progress. Outside LaBranche's classroom, students mark off every time they complete five products on a pictogram, two different bar graphs and one pie chart, which shows the various percentages of completion.
Budgeting is also a big component. During the shopping mall day, students spend half the time manning their store booths, collecting money and counting out change for their classmates' purchases, and the students also must manage their own money, debating which items will get them the most bang for their bucks.
The students also learn the different vocabulary words associated with running a business: "product," "revenue" and "expenditure" are among the terms the students have learned so far. Students also write and shoot commercials, learning how to create scripts that will attract buyers. Most commercials include an original jingle about the product, sung to a familiar tune.
Students design a business card, labeling themselves as owners and CEOs. LaBranche prints the business cards, and the students can trade them around with their classmates as they practice their pitches.
"It makes the learning hands-on," LaBranche said.
And that's the goal, Principal Mike Rio said.
"Great teachers use meaningful content to make learning come alive," Rio said, adding it's a feat in and of itself to have 12 classrooms coordinate and plan for the same project.
In LaBranche's class on Monday afternoon, just a week and a half before opening day, students busily created crafts at their desks. In addition to Rocky's Pet Barn, students in LaBranche's class will run Guardian Angel Outlet, which sells small trinkets to hang from the rearview mirror in a car, reminding drivers to drive slowly and safely; Gift Bag Bakery, which sells brown paper bags adorned with candy and well-suited to hold holiday gifts; and Bright and Shiny Jewelry, which features festive string necklaces adorned with brightly colored light bulbs.
Fastening a small note and a funky-shaped paperclip to a piece of string, 9-year-old Jake Pritchett spoke about his business in relation to the other projects in the class.
"Our was the third hardest to make, to tie," he said.
The item is selling for the second-lowest price, at $4.25, among those in the classroom.
"We've made a storefront, our sign, business cards," his teammate, 8-year-old Ciara Cannon, said. "We learned how to work together."
In addition to the business and economics lessons learned during the project, the project also serves another purpose, LeBranche said.
"It's right in time for the holiday season," LeBranche said. "They students can shop and buy home-made crafts to serve as gifts."
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.