When school opened this fall at Eden Prairie High School in Minneapolis, the new instructor of business management didn't need to quote from a textbook -- he had plenty of lessons from real life. The teacher is Scott Drill, president and CEO of Varitronic Systems Inc., a $10-million manufacturer of business graphics systems. This year he and 10 of his top managers are reliving with a class of high-school seniors the anxiety and euphoria of building a company.

Drill is one of four small-company executives going to the blackboard under an educational outreach program spearheaded by Brett Johnson, president of a small-business group called the Minnesota New Venture Collaborative. Johnson says the program grew out of a concern that schools were turning out graduates who don't understand what causes layoffs or how a product gets to market. "Business is a fundamental life skill," Johnson says. "For kids who don't go on to college, a class like this may be their only business preparation." Each participating company donates its managers' time plus $5,000 to cover school trips, research material, and support staff. And what's the return? "Ultimately, any company, large or small, depends on the success of the people in its community," says Johnson, adding that when a company hooks up with the local school, it will probably be working with children of employees and customers.

-- Elizabeth Conlin