Classroom of the Week | Taconic students showcase business savvy at national Business Professionals of America competition

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PITTSFIELD — I visited students of the Taconic High School chapter of Business Professionals of America on Thursday morning to catch up with them about their participation last week in the organization's National Leadership Conference in Anaheim, Calif.

It's a very enthusiastic, entrepreneurial and humble group, led by an equally enthusiastic, entrepreneurial yet humble teacher, Lynn DiSimoni, who has been taking the BPA students to state and national competitions for nearly two decades. Among them this year are two students who placed among the top 10 in the nation for demonstrating their knowledge in banking and finance: juniors Thomas Rabasco, who placed fifth, and Emily Keegan, who placed eighth. Junior Sydnie Sherman also placed third, in the "Bank On It Tournament" hosted by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, that tests students' "wit, wisdom and ambition," when it comes to savvy financial decision-making.

About 6,000 students participate in the National Leadership Conference each year, competing in 90 categories across five skills assessment areas, including: finance, business administration, management information systems, digital communication and design and management, marketing and communication. Think of it as sort of an Olympics among business students who earn validation that they are more than ready to manage real-world scenarios and dominate the workplace.

"Some people think it's just going to travel, but I just took six or seven tests over the course of three days. There's nothing like it," said junior Jake Paris.

He was among a dozen students who also earned professional certifications in business fields like accounting and business concepts. Others receiving industry certification were Rabasco, Keegan, Elisalyn Conroy, Jared Stedman, Quentin Gittens, Quincy Davis, Colin Meaney, Abigail Heath, Ashley Armstrong, Ashlee Langlois and Sara Curry.

"It's something bigger than school," said junior Wyatt George. "It gives you the skills that last past college."

But when it comes to developing the skills and strategies they need to succeed, it all starts in the classroom, then expands to countless extracurricular hours of studying and preparation, students said.

Juniors Natalia Agrelo and Heath recall last year's journey in developing a business plan for a "DIY Doughnut Shop," which took them all the way to the top 10 in the National Leadership Conference Showcase.

"We called doughnut shops everywhere, big ones and small ones, to understand how they operate," Agrelo said.

The team priced ingredients, figured costs per volume and costs per unit, and then what they'd have to charge customers to turn a profit.

During the planning process, Heath said, there were times when calculators were thrown across the room.

"There were tears," she said, but also resolve.

"You get invested in it. You want it to work," she said.

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Just to qualify for the national showcase, the team had to participate in a Skype presentation with judges to make their business pitch. Then, the morning of the competition, the students scrambled to get their hands on real doughnuts and toppings from a mall food court in that year's competition state of Texas to simulate their business on the showcase floor, all while discussing their work — from financing to floor plans.

"It was a very real simulation," Agrelo said. "It's something you're really proud of, too."

She said that she feels that some people in the community, even teachers, "don't understand how good this experience is for us."

Senior Jared Stedman said the program teaches students a lot about leadership and how to recognize each other's strengths. He competed on a financial analyst team with classmates Gittens, Davis and Meaney.

"We all got together and figured out who's good at what. Colin and I are good at speaking and presenting, and Quentin and Quincy are really good at numbers and problem-solving," Stedman said.

Even though the group didn't place, its members said they spent 10 to 15 minutes after the competition talking with judges to learn how they could have improved.

Students also can flex their muscles by taking on additional leadership roles at different levels of Business Professionals of America. Ethan Coe, a junior, serves at president for the Taconic chapter. Last year, senior Jayden Cross served as state treasurer, an office that Ellianna Christopher, a sophomore, successfully campaigned for this year. The latter role involves maintaining books and financially planning for the state conference.

Being a part of the Taconic chapter of BPA also means you get from it what you put into it.

When DiSimoni briefly left the interview to check on a class, Stedman chimed in: "Mrs. D works harder than any of us organizing these opportunities."

While students faithfully represent Taconic, the Berkshires and Massachusetts each year, bringing home medals from this national arena, they receive no funding for their efforts. Each member, on top of their own coursework, jobs and other extracurricular activities, has to put in the sweat equity to organize fundraising activities, like the annual Pittsfield Rye Bakery bread sale and Mr. Taconic pageant. It costs about $300 to participate in the state competition in Framingham and about $900 for the national conference each year; students say that despite fundraising efforts, some chapter members are priced out of the competition.

"I wish there were more recognition of the benefit you get from this experience," George said. "If every student did this, they'd have a leg up in the future."

DiSimoni, who is retiring this year, said coaching students to compete through BPA and getting to see them put their academics into action have resulted in "nearly 20 years of amazing memories and watching students grow."

Said junior Ryan Robbins: "No one leaves BPA unhappy or unfulfilled."


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