By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Thousands of Greater Cincinnati high school students will soon enter brand-new buildings, and awaiting them will be the latest version of a growing local and national trend:
Until a few years ago, school officials wanting to sell anything to students would simply erect a table in a main hallway with volunteers hawking school logo T-shirts, pens and notebooks.
When Indian Hill High School students move into their $16 million school March 29, they will find a large, modern store to serve them.
In August, Lebanon, Monroe, and Bishop Fenwick high schools will open new buildings. All will include expanded school stores - some next to mini-bank branch offices.
The Saks Fifth Avenue of local school stores is in Warren County's $45 million Mason High School, which has been visited by many school officials since it opened in 2002 as they design their own, new retail operations.
Decorated in Mason Comet green and white with modern retail fixtures - including track lighting shining on blond wood display walls - the Comet Zone school store offers an array of school items, including:
T-shirts, sweat shirts, dress shirts and athletic shorts.
Athletic tote bags, blankets, pompoms, drink holders, cups and pennants.
License plate holders, key chains, greeting cards and textbooks
"I was very impressed," said Sam Ison, principal of Lebanon High School, who toured Mason's student-run store last year to get ideas for his school's retail operation. "It looks like a little college shop."
School-operated retail stores are growing in sophistication and popularity, said Tim Coffey, director of corporate development for the Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA), which works with more than 5,000 member-school stores.
Coffey said his group's most recent surveys show that about 80 percent of DECA-member schools operate stores.
While some school stores are not affiliated with DECA, such as Mason's, Coffey estimated that eight of 10 U.S. high schools have a retail store.
"It's a great way for kids to learn about marketing, business and entrepreneurship," he said from Reston, Va.
"They don't make a lot of money, but that's not their main focus."
Exactly, explained Mason High business teacher Debra Gentene, as she stood outside the Comet Zone store recently while watching a handful of volunteer student workers prepare for lunchtime student shoppers.
"The whole purpose is to be a learning center. The students make all the business decisions and I'm just the facilitator," Gentene said of the business class students who operate the store as part of their academic requirements.
"Academics aren't always taught to students while they sit at classroom desks," she said of the cash management, marketing, inventory control, retail display work and sales skills learned by the students.
The store started operating shortly after the school, considered the most modern in Ohio, opened and school officials made a $33,000 loan to Gentene in start-up money. Her class is still paying on the loan, but the store recently began operating in the black for the first time. Profits from the store go into a student scholarship fund.
Store workers Laura Doner, a junior, attributed the store's popularity to the store's growing selection.
"Students really like that we offer a huge variety of apparel and we get a lot of visitors from out in the community who come into the store," Doner said.
Sophomore Brooke Baria likes to browse after lunch.
"It offers a lot of good quality stuff and the prices are reasonable," said Brooke.
That's by design, Gentene said. Apparel prices range from $5 to $40, with an average markup of 15 percent.
Next to the store is the Mason Comet Savings & Loan, a mini-branch of First Financial Bank. Lebanon's new $50 million school will offer a branch of the Lebanon Citizens National Bank and Monroe's $32 million school will have a branch office affiliated with a bank to be determined.
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