BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — When Hiram Bonet ducks out of class at noon and heads for the Mall of America, he's not skipping school to shop or ride the roller coaster at the seven-acre amusement park.
His trip is legit. The 17-year-old is learning business skills from the experts--those who run the nation's largest enclosed shopping mall and entertainment complex.
Bonet, a junior at Bloomington's Kennedy High School, is one of 15 students enrolled in a course in entrepreneurship and business at the mall's new learning center.
"They are pursuing career interests and getting a flavor of what it's like," said Jerry Cromer-Poire, a social studies teacher from St. Paul Central High School who teaches the pilot course. "We're not involved in flipping hamburgers."
Students spend mornings in regular classes at their home schools, then go to the mall for classes and internships with businesses Monday through Thursday afternoons.
For Cromer-Poire's students, internships can be as varied as the 400-plus businesses in the mall.
A student interested in sports medicine works at a sports equipment store. A student considering a career in jewelry-making works at a jewelry store. Others help manage restaurants, sell clothes and recycle.
The center opened in January and plans by next fall to offer several courses to about 100 students from five districts.
Each class will have a real-world partner. The pilot class is being offered with the mall's developers and operations staff.
An environmental issues class will get help from Browning-Ferris Industries, which collects and recycles the mall's garbage. An arts in the marketplace class will work with the Camp Snoopy amusement park in the middle of the mall, which offers plays and musical performances along with its rides.
The concept of taking business classes at the mall isn't much different from taking other specialized classes at vocational-technical schools or taking zoology classes at the zoo, Cromer-Poire said.
"This is an opportunity to go in at management level. The idea of making decisions, of getting involved in change, is very important," he said.
That has captured the imagination of Bonet, who is interning with operations--the people who run the mall.
"I just wanted a broad-based view of what it takes to run the Mall of America," said Bonet, who plans to major in business in college. After that, he says, he may go into business law. "What areas of business, I wasn't sure. That's why I took this class."
Bonet has worked with the mall's tourism department, selling the mall to potential visitors; the sponsorship department, persuading businesses to sponsor events in return for advertising; public relations and events planning, and sales.
Now, he sees the stamp of businesses everywhere.
"When I go into Camp Snoopy I notice the 'Hormel' Cookout, the 'Ford' Playhouse. The hot-air balloons say 'Pepsi.' It's in your face," Bonet said.
"You're learning because you want to learn, not because someone's trying to force it. In a regular classroom, you focus so much on the work that you forget to learn."
He added: "This class will look wonderful on a college application."
Businesses using student interns also are pleased.
Tom Gotreau, manager of Tony Roma's restaurant, is training a student in restaurant operations and wants her to see all sides of the business--including busing dishes, hostessing and working in the kitchen.
"If they're going to come work in these businesses, they can't get just a one-sided slant," he said. "She has a keen interest in what's going on. I wish all of my employees were like that."
Marcy Richeson, manager of the Gap Kids store, is teaching an intern the tricks of the children's clothing business.
"She's learning about the product, how to sell the product. She's aware of the dollars we need to do, what we need to do to beat our last year's dollars. She's learning what we're all about."
Cromer-Poire said students aren't distracted by other things at the mall. On classroom days, the students get a 10-minute break halfway through the period.
"I've never lost anybody yet," he said. "The attendance rate is wonderful. The kids are all motivated. They all try hard. I see kids talking more concretely about college plans."
Bonet said his parents were skeptical at first when he told them he wanted to attend a class at the mall. "Until I brought home the books. They found out it was a legitimate class and not just a way to waste time."
Students who want to shop or play at the mall can do so on their own time. But Bonet said most of the students have jobs and other responsibilities when school is over, so they don't hang around the mall.
"Once you get a feel of what our school is all about, if you're truly interested in entrepreneurship, there's no way that you'd skip to do something else," he said.