Not every high school student will clamor to participate in a business competition. Perhaps, students say, the word “boring” even comes to mind.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth at Fountain-Fort Carson High School, where about 10% of the school’s population participates in international business organization DECA. Last month they raked in more than a dozen awards — including three state champion titles — at the Colorado state competition.

“Business is more than just going to the office wearing a suit, you know, business meetings in a high rise. There’s business everywhere you look, every building, every job,” DECA award-winning student Lauren Hodges said. “Business is the base of literally everything.”

DECA, the Distributive Education Clubs of America, has more than 220,000 high school student members across more than 3,600 chapters. The international organization prepares students for business careers in finance, marketing, hospitality and management, although its lessons extend far beyond those confines.

At Fountain-Fort Carson High School, students spend class time learning the ins and outs of business while touching on life skills that are applicable to students pursuing any career: public speaking, resume writing, appropriate work attire. Colorado State University Pueblo even hosts students for an etiquette lunch.

“They teach the kids how to eat with more than one fork and not out of a box, or out of a paper bag, or off of a tray,” DECA adviser Mike Patti said.

His students’ favorite part, however, lies outside the classroom at the district, state and — if they’re so lucky to qualify — international competitions, where they face off against others through 100-question tests and role plays.

This year, 19 Fountain-Fort Carson High School students qualified for the DECA International Career Development Conference in April. For four days, Orlando will all but belong to the program.

“You look around, and there’s just hundreds of students walking. You basically take over the city,” said Melanie Brousseau, this year’s state champion in both business services and project management business solutions. “No one here is going to a five-star resort and traveling outside the state and says that’s boring.”

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Students compete in two types of role play scenarios: prepared and not prepared. 

For prepared role plays, students work on their presentations for months leading up to a competition and have ample time to fine tune their work. In others, they are given 10 minutes to consider a prompt and prepare a presentation for the judges on the spot.

In each scenario, students and judges alike take on the persona of an entirely different person. They might be a financial consultant speaking to a bank manager or a technology consultant assisting an amusement park. 

The program has exploded in success and popularity at Fountain-Fort Carson High School. The 2022-2023 school year has set a record for awards won and student participation for the second consecutive year, Patti said. More than 200 students are involved, up from about 150 last year.

The increased participation and retention are in part due to Hodges and fellow DECA student Faith Queen’s “Mentoring Monday” initiative. The senior students identified areas where they struggled as underclassmen and present to new DECA members on those topics to make for a smoother transition into the organization. Their “Mentoring Monday” project was a project management career development finalist at this year’s state championship.

“Once I graduate, that’s it,” Brouseau, another senior who shares notes and training guides with underclassmen, said. “We want to leave something behind.” 

The students credit Patti’s extensive knowledge and energy for DECA as the reason for the program’s growing success, even in light of the pandemic. 

Patti, however, says it’s a mixture of a supportive administration and the right students that have allowed DECA to flourish under his watch.

“I’ve been doing this 25 years, never had this group of this many good kids,” Patti said. He spent 20 years at Pueblo East High School before joining Fountain-Fort Carson in 2018. “I’ve devoted my life’s work to it, so it’s kind of nice seeing all the fruits of the hard work.”

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