Project Colstrip: Changing a Community, One Entrepreneur at a Time

The story of a small midwest town embracing education to tackle some big problems.

In the small southeastern Montana town of Colstrip, the coal plant has been as dependable as the air we breathe. The vast majority of Colstrip’s fewer than 3,000 residents are employed by the power plant or the coal mine that feeds it. So, when pressures forced the plant’s owners to announce a phased, permanent closure of the facility, Colstrip residents were shook.

Colstrip produces nearly half the power that flows into major Washington-state business campuses (e.g., Boeing and Microsoft), but this doesn’t matter: Colstrip will be forced to reimagine itself, pivoting it’s entire local economy in just a matter of years, or face the fate of too many other towns before it: a permanent diaspora of its people. 

But in Colstrip, two brave teachers believe there’s a better way forward.

Mindy Kohn and her colleague Tiana Yates, of Colstrip High School, see their entrepreneurship classes as the key to giving Colstrip hope. Kohn brought the innovative program, called Youth Entrepreneurs, into her culinary, fashion, tourism, and personal finance classes, a move that initially bewildered students and parents. And Yates, a teacher still learning on-the-fly implemented it in her courses to get kids active and engaged. But, when students started to transform, open up, and start their own businesses, it drew the attention of community leaders and other teachers. It may well be the idea that saves Colstrip. It’ll certainly save the kids who get to work with Yates and Kohn.

Raising Community Leaders

By putting real-world problems in the hands of students, these teachers are building entrepreneurs.

If you walk by Yates’ classroom at Colstrip High, you’ll hear lots of moving and chatting. You’ll see students clustered in groups. You might even see OREO cookies, gummy worms, and pudding scattered about the tables.

What is this? Social hour? Or a business class? Stop in. Observe closer. Listen.

“So each pudding pack costs a quarter, three OREO cookies cost a quarter, and each set of gummy worms cost 30 cents,” a student may say. “The cup and spoon are another 12 cents.”

It’s an economics lesson about the cost of goods sold (COGS), and this is one of many lessons in an entrepreneurial class Yates is implementing. Eating the product once they’ve determined their game plan isn’t part of the lesson: it’s just plain fun. 

“You exercised some nice sound judgment,” she says, rounding one crumb-filled table to visit another.

“I hear some good examples of a win-win focus,” Yates told another group, currently busy scraping up the last of the pudding.

Now it was time to implement part two of her plan.

The students bought supplies for the real coffee shop they planned to open at the high school. 

“I said ‘Let’s start looking into some pricing and how much should we sell a latte for.’ One girl already had half our list figured out,” Yates says. “I was just a guide. That is my goal in the classroom. To guide the students through these experiences.”

Sneaky, huh?

Flipping the Classroom on its Head

The neat thing about watching Yates flip teaching on its head, is that in her view, it’s not particularly unique. To her, it just makes sense. She wants her students questioning concepts and solving problems. She wants them building their ideas in ways that will impact their lives and communities. She is always thinking about how she can spin an ordinary lesson into a real-life, relatable scenario that will serve her students for life.

Yates didn’t learn this innovation from her education on how to be a teacher; she is just now learning how to be one. She first earned a business degree, worked a while in the hospitality industry, and ran her own wedding and event planning business. 

She came to Colstrip because her husband works at that local power plant. Needing a job, she began substitute teaching. That led to her acquiring a Class 5 Emergency Permit to teach in Montana. Now that she’s hooked on the profession, she is working to earn her teaching certification and a master’s degree.

Change is the name of the game. Speaking of the local power plant, it’s one of the reasons Yates is so passionate about fast-tracking the entrepreneurial mindset that her town needs right now.

Colstrip has depended upon the local power plant as its economic driver for generations. With a planned total shutdown by the summer of 2022, the phased exit of the coal-fired Colstrip Electric Generating Station is going to leave a gaping hole in the local economy. One that, with the right young minds, can and will be filled with new ideas and innovations.

Like many other small towns across the nation, this community needs some young business-minded folks unafraid to take their entrepreneurial ideas to market and start building a profitable future.

So when Yates and her fellow teacher, Mindy Kohn, happened upon a booth at a Career and Technical Education Conference and learned about the Youth Entrepreneurs program, they envisioned an immediate payoff.

“I would be crazy not to try this,” Yates says. 

Kohn concurred, and together the pair is gradually getting every other teacher at Colstrip High on board.

Entrepreneurship for Everyone

If Colstrip is to reimagine itself, it’ll take a lot more than AP courses and good test scores. It’ll take a people who see a major challenge as an opportunity; an opportunity to build something newer, better, bigger than before. That’s why Kohn has adapted the entrepreneurship program into courses that might seem like a strange fit. 

 “I don’t think anyone could rationally argue why it wouldn’t make sense to learn about entrepreneurship in almost any class, truly,” Kohn says.

She herself runs a culinary side hustle, for instance.

One of Kohn’s students had the idea about bringing a non-profit dialysis center to the Indian reservation where she lives. She had seen her grandparents travel to Billings for care so often that she felt there was an unfulfilled need.

Yates and Kohn recently guided the student in molding her ideas into a contest submission. The Montana Chamber of Commerce’s 2021 High School Business Plan and Pitch Competition will award cash prizes and scholarships to high school students with new ideas and existing small businesses.

“It does impact the community, it just depends what the student is passionate about,” Kohn says.

Another start-up venture with promise is Abby Baer’s Virtual Outfitters, an app the sophomore designed to help online shoppers. Users upload their photo along with their measurements. Then, they can visualize themselves in the piece of clothing they’re considering buying. Her vision is to sell the app to retailers who would link to the tool from their online stores.

She intends to pitch her idea to the popular clothing store in Colstrip, followed by other retailers.

“I did not know I was that creative, until I started doing her class,” Baer says, “and that I could actually start a business.”

Photo by Jen Petritz

The Real Purpose of Education

While much of education can get lost in standardized testing, AP credit, and the hundreds of other distractions that muddy our waters, the true purpose of schooling is on full display in the classrooms of Yates and Kohn. By addressing the students’ individual needs and unique abilities, they’re addressing the needs of a struggling community. 

Kohn says her once-weekly entrepreneurship activities have succeeded in getting students who don’t normally participate in classroom activities more engaged.

“It’s scary to give up control when you are doing PBL [project-based learning]. You don’t want to just let the kids go. Because what’s going to happen? You don’t know.”

Maybe careers should feel like this. Letting go of control in order to take it back. That will most certainly be the story of Colstrip. Letting go of something that felt so important, and believing in their people to usher in the next big thing.  

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