The recent Trick-or-Trot races that colored the Mound Westonka High School scene with costumed runners had an extra treat in the bag: $1,000.

The 5K and 1-Mile races were part of a student-led fundraiser for DECA; they also benefited local nonprofit WeCAN.

DECA is Westonka’s largest student organization. In a high school of about 900 students, 180 are projected to be part of the business marketing organization this year, said Sue Simonson.

Simonson, a technology and business teacher at Mound Westonka High School, has been a DECA advisor for the past 12 years. Last year, the school sent a contingency of 109 students downtown to Orchestra Hall for state level competition; 19 made internationals – and became this year’s DECA officers.

DECA aims to prepare emerging leaders for the future, but in the meantime students use skills honed through pretend scenarios for making a real impact in the community.

MWHS opened its new business center this year just before classes started. The center, designed in part by Simonson and MWHS business and marketing teacher (and fellow DECA advisor) Toby Robinson, is a computer lab meets conference room meets open work space, and when it isn’t being used for classes, it’s also DECA headquarters.

The mindset behind the center reflects the shift in academia, even at the secondary level, toward greater resemblance with the post-grad working life - and so, life beyond the classroom.

“When you’re in a school environment you feel almost held in. There’s the outside world and then there’s school,” said Trent Kelly, a three-year DECA student. DECA, he said, allows students to get to that outside world.

And getting to the outside world is something that isn’t always emphasized at the high school level.

Post-grad life, whether that’s post-college or post-high school, has us ill-prepared for the real world, studies have shown. A 2018 McGraw Hill survey found that fewer than half of college graduates felt they were prepared in areas like complex problem solving, resume writing and interviewing.

More than that, a job outlook study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found a huge discrepancy in perception between recent grads and employers: 77 percent of recent college grads felt confident in their professionalism and work ethic; only 43 percent of employers could say the same.

DECA competitions might be pretend scenarios, but they’re pretend scenarios that translate to the real world.

“I think people see DECA just as a business club and it’s not. It’s teaching people a lot more about how to present things, how to talk to people, how to communicate their ideas,” said Kelly. “Of course there’s business knowledge involved, but it provides for all types of careers.”

Kelly is a head organizer of the school’s upcoming Reality Fair. Juniors and seniors at MWHS will get a scenario – what type of job they have, housing and whether they have children – and find out just what is meant by financial literacy.

While DECA competitions focus on the presentation, the creativity and problem solving brought to the table with any given scenario, whether that’s an innovation plan or marketing campaign, the chapter projects DECA officers work on throughout the year – like Kelly’s fair, which will also look at the details behind college tuition costs, have real impact for the community.

Amelia Proulx, a senior at MWHS, is one of the brains behind RISE Westonka, a unified sports and activities program for students in grades five through 12 who have disabilities.

These students can be disadvantaged just in finding opportunities to play sports, said Proulx, who said the idea was brought to her and her fellow project managers by a Special Education teacher at Grandview Middle School.

Eighteen students have already signed up for Proulx’s program, which held a recent pickle ball night with captains of the MWHS tennis team.

Other students are looking at using civic engagement to spur change at the high school level.

Kathryn Collins, a sophomore, helped develop Westonka Listens, setting up a web-based submissions system to get feedback from anyone at the high school about what they’d like to see change – and with the financial backing of an anonymous local donor.

“We would say we’re more the popular vote versus the electoral college,” said Collins, contrasting her project with the Student Senate.

Within two days, Collins said the Spigot website had brought in 20 submissions, including ones suggesting a switch to a weighted GPA for honors classes and offering more vegetarian options in the cafeteria.

Collins said the most-voted idea would still have to be feasible – so, homework is here to stay – but that she and her cohorts on the project would work to “bring it down to something that can work for both the administration and students.”

While DECA is billed as a business and marketing club, its students are quick to say that it’s really a lot more than that.

“I think that the communications skills and perseverance that I get out of this is something that I’ll never lose,” said Collins, who made a point of saying she has no interest in going into the business field.

Proulx said that her DECA project – the unified sports program – inspired her to think about a future in education and added that, despite her leadership position, those she’s worked with have taught her just as much as she’s taught them.

“Once you get going, it gets really exciting and you just want to see where something you created can go,” said Collins.

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