A feature story in the January 3 Springfield Republican looked at the Sneakers 4 Success program started by mechanical engineering undergrad Samuel Del Pilar at the Renaissance School in Springfield to teach urban children about real-world business through what he calls “sneaker culture.” Del Pilar developed Sneakers 4 Success as an educational program that teaches city students real-life marketing, design, and business skills through their affinity for basketball sneakers. Sneakers 4 Success recently won $1,750 in the Executive Summary & Elevator Pitch phase of the University of Massachusetts Innovation Challenge.

Here is the Republican story:

The 7th graders at The Renaissance School in Springfield came to class for kicks last week, and following a tour of Reebok headquarters in Canton, Mass., designed their own sneakers and pitched them to a Northampton sneaker store owner.

“Sneakers 4 Success,” used the popularity of urban sneaker culture to teach students the real world applications of business and technology over four days.

"The idea is to try to understand the literal connection you have to creating something that's mass produced," Carlos McBride, a professor of urban studies at Hampshire College, told students during the first day of the program.

It was one of many week-long electives offered during the Renaissance School's semester-ending "Intensive Week." Other topics included cooking, drumming, and overnight camping on the Appalachian Trail.

The idea came to University of Massachusetts senior engineering student Samuel Del Pilar during a summer internship with Reebok. He pitched the idea to Reebok executives in August, and was asked to prove the program could be put into action.

When Del Pilar saw the middle-school students’ reactions after speaking on a panel and detailing how he had used a degree in engineering to create the prospect of a career in the sneaker industry, he moved forward with the idea.

“When Sam said that his major was morphed into sneaker engineer and sneaker design a lot of the kids were like, ‘Whoa I didn’t even know you could do that,’” said Renaissance ELA teacher Teisha Thomas.

Thomas said students began to understand how college degrees could translate into careers in industries that interested them, such as the one surrounding the sneakers that they wear to school every day.

“When I heard that Sam wanted to pilot a program like that I jumped on it,” Thomas said.

Back in Amherst Del Pilar assembled a team of nine UMass and Hampshire College students, drafted a curriculum, and with a third place finish in the UMass Innovation Challenge won funding for the project.

The program began on the final Tuesday before schools broke for the holiday break. Throughout the fall Thomas’ 7th grade English class had focused on the meaning of identity in books like “We Beat the Streets,” which tells the story of three childhood friends who met at a magnet school like Renaissance and made a pact to graduate college and then tackle medical school.

Day one of Sneakers 4 Success probed the urban identity and asked students to examine why they liked the sneakers. Students compared their taste to commercial advertisements and watched excerpts from “Just for Kicks,” a 2005 documentary on the sneaker industry.

“The brands are studying your actions. You are the trendsetters,” said McBride, who drew on his own childhood to connect with students and the fever of a pair of fresh kicks.

McBride shared a story of his own, when unable to afford new sneakers for the first day of school he borrowed a pair from a friend. Several sizes too big he stuffed socks in the toes of the sneakers in order to wear them.

“We can talk about the commodification and the materialism, but there’s something that happens when you have young folks that don’t have access to a number of things, that they get a pair of sneakers, a hat, or a jacket, and it kind of lets people know they exist. That this is who they are,” McBride said afterwards in an interview.

Del Pilar expressed similar sentiment. He described the communal affair of waiting in line all night with childhood friends for the coveted release of a new sneaker.

His words were echoed when on the final day of Sneakers 4 Success headlines around the country buzzed with news of thousands of eager shoppers camping overnight at malls and storefronts for the re-release of Michael Jordan’s 1990’s model Jordan Retro XI “Concord.” In Springfieldshoppers lined Main Street’s sidewalk outside Urban Gear, an urban apparel store, and pitched tents outside Expression’s Boston Road location.

Thomas said that to many of her students, sneakers are one of the few remaining ways to express individuality at school since a city-wide dress code was instated in 2008.

“The one piece of individuality outside of accessories and jewelry is their shoes. That’s the only way for them to express outside of the strict uniform who they really are,” Thomas said. “It’s clear that it matters to them and connecting something that matters to a possible future in a STEM (science, mathematics, engineering and technology) environment, which is an area where minority students aren’t well represented is a big thing.”

Richard Barreiros, a 12-year-old Renaissance student said his shoes say a lot about him.

"The type of sneaker you get shows your personality. Mine show I like sports and basketball because I have a lot of basketball shoes,” he said.

When Richard and his classmates learned they would have the opportunity to tour Reebok’s world headquarters in Canton, Mass., they were thrilled.

"Almost everything you do in school is going to help you in this job. Everything from math, to history and English I've pulled skills from," Neil Slepian, Senior Manager of Footwear Development at Reebok, said to students seated around a conference-room table at Reebok.

Students listened as Reebok's product developers demonstrated how game-time conditions are recreated in the human performance engineering lab, a half basketball court overlooked by the room where the kids sat. Following presentations from a series of engineers concept artists used sketchbooks to demonstrate the process of developing new designs.

Lysandra Gonzalez, a 13-year-old Renaissance student, was especially impressed with the designers.

"Actually sitting in a conference room and seeing the shoes they'd designed but hadn't come out with yet was the most exciting part,” said Gonzalez, who admitted she was still interested in nursing despite the trip.

Returning to the classroom the next day students encountered no shortage of creativity when it came to building their own designs. With art supplies, tracing paper, and fabric samples students worked in groups to build two-dimensional prototypes of their ideal sneaker, and even produced their own commercials to incorporate into their marketing strategies.

In the culmination of a week of work, groups competed head-to-head with to see how their designs would fare with local urban footwear and clothing boutique owner, Jovan James.

ames, owner of UNITE Footwear in Northampton, began by retracing the steps he’d taken to own a business in something he’s passionate about.

“Follow your dreams and do what interests you,” James said. “Acquire life skills along the way and be adventurous. Think outside the box and don’t let yourself get pigeon-holed into doing something that you don’t love.”

James began his career in herpetology – the study of reptiles – before attending culinary school and transitioning through an executive Sous-chef position before eventually approaching a local business owner and purchasing his storefront.

He encouraged students to learn ways to use social media to benefit themselves and their community in a positive way, and offered examples of ways his company uses Facebook to provide customers with instant notifications when new inventory arrives. Students were awarded with gear from his store following their presentation.

Thomas called the program a success and said that programs like this will continue to benefit students with the support of the community.

She said the role of college students in urban classrooms is a valuable one, where the possibility of higher education can sometimes be an elusive idea.

“I think it’s important that colleges and universities make their presence known in elementary and middle schools so its not this concept, this idea of where I’m supposed to go but it’s a reality, it’s something visual, something tangible. It’s something I understand as a student who perhaps my family has never gone there,” Thomas said.

Christian Wise, a volunteer with Sneakers 4 Success who formerly attended UMass and currently studies at Medgar Evers College in New York, said he considers it his “responsibility to give back.”

“We wouldn’t be here without those who pointed us in the right direction. It’s absolutely necessary to guide these kids to where they need to be because there’s so many negative influences that are effecting them socially, economically, politically and foremost academically, that you have almost fifty percent of kids dropping out of high school,” Wise said.

However in six years The Renaissance School has seen results in stark contrast to the Springfield’s 53% city-wide graduation rate. According to the Department of Education, Springfield graduated 53% of its four-year high school students in 2010. According to data from 2009, an additional 3.7% graduated following their fifth year.

Since it opened in 2006, Renaissance, which serves grades 6-12, has seen two graduating classes. Of their graduating students, 100% have entered college, a goal established by the school from its outset.

Mahoney’s solution, “Make it smaller.”

“Every kid that walks by I know by name,” said Mahoney, before demonstrating his claim in a busy hallway of the expeditionary learning school, a model developed at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in 1987 to further urban education programming to facilitate student familiarity with the world in which they live.

“Even if you’re super-dynamic and super-committed you can’t know every kid’s name in a school with 1,200 or 2,000 kids. That’s ridiculous,” Mahoney said.

He explained that on top of having only 700 students at Renaissance, faculty and administration are with them for seven years once they enter in the sixth grade.

“You can’t put a price on growing up with kids. It’s more of a family,” he said.

“The second piece is you have to be able to have really committed adults in your building,” and of that, Mahoney says, he and the students are very lucky. (January 2012)