For Stoughton High School business teacher Maggie Heck, there’s nothing quite like DECA, an international business student organization she terms “just the best thing in the entire world.”

This school year, she’s gotten the chance to share that vision with Stoughton High School students, who are signing up to be part of the school’s new program, even if it’s taken a bit of encouraging.

The Sun Prairie native, first-year teacher at SHS, has worked with DECA since 2009, when she was in high school. She graduated from University of Wisconsin-Stout with a degree in business and marketing education while working with the group, and later spent three years as an intern at Wisconsin DECA.

Not surprisingly, when it came time to choose a teaching job, there was only one requirement – starting a DECA chapter at the high school, which had never had one.

“I could teach whatever classes and do whatever they needed me to do, but that was my one non-negotiable,” she told the Hub last week. “I was looking at a couple other jobs, and they were not interested in a DECA chapter, and I was not interested in pursuing those options.”

She accepted the job at SHS, and when the calendar turned to September and students arrived to start the year, she was ready to pounce.

“At the beginning of the school year, I was kind of the newbie, and nobody knew what to think of me because I was kind of intense about everything, in a good way,” Heck said. “I was just so excited about DECA and starting my career, so I would teach for the first 35 minutes and then talk about DECA.”

Heck said she showed her business students videos about DECA and the opportunities it provides, making sure to “give it exposure in all my classes.”

“I kept talking about it – ‘hey, if you love accounting, then you would really love competing in DECA,’” she said. “Or, ‘you like math, you should check out the finance section of DECA.’ I just kept hammering it in.”

The efforts paid off, and within the first week of school, Heck had a nine-member officer team who kept spreading the word.

“They started putting things on the announcements and putting things on people’s lockers and telling their friends and we got more and more kids talking about it and they would just trickle in,” she said. “Finally they were like, ‘you bugged us enough, we’re joining.’”

Jumping right in

According to its website, DECA prepares “emerging leaders and entrepreneurs in marketing, finance, hospitality and management in high school and colleges,” but Heck said it’s more than just business, with opportunities for students to get involved in volunteering and competitions as they wish.

“DECA takes literally everything you’re learning in the classroom and gives it a stage for them to practice what the business world looks like and what other professional worlds look like, because they don’t have that until they get to college or into a career,” she said.

But to start a program from scratch takes time. That’s why Heck said she’s been amazed at the turnout – she had a goal of 20 members for the first year, but after just three months, there are around 50.

“It’s been pretty incredible,” she said.

So far, Heck has been concentrating on personal skills needed for job interviews and business interactions; something she said many high school students are lacking in this age of “cell phones and social media.”

“They can talk to anybody, but they don’t have the skills for talking face-to-face and shaking someone’s hand and putting your phone away and knowing how to dress when you go to a conference,” she said. “You can’t go to a job interview or a competition in a crop top and sweatpants, you have to dress professional and you have to present yourself.”

Opportunities abound

The advantage of DECA, Heck said, is it’s not suited for just one type of student; it’s meant to be provide a variety of opportunities, depending on what they’re interested in. She said the “big three” things are community service, a “social” aspect and a competitive aspect.

“In competition they can do anything from financial services to marketing management to hospitality, or they can do community service projects or stuff for Make-A-Wish, helping to raise a certain amount of money.

“It brings out challenges that aren’t just, ‘oh, I’m going to win’ – it’s going to help other people by doing something in our school to give money back.’”

Heck said the time commitment is modest, with one membership meeting a month and a weekly officer team meeting. Students have many options on how to participate, from competitions to volunteer work around the area.

“If they just want to do one hour of bell ringing for the Salvation Army or get more involved, they can make it whatever they want it to be,” she said. “It gives them some freedom, because if you’re in a sport where you practice every day, there’s not a whole lot of leeway.”

And so far, Heck couldn’t be happier at how things are going, and the connection she’s making with her new students through DECA.

“It gets them excited about so many different things,” she said. “One girl came up to me and said, ‘I never really felt I had a place that I belonged, and now that DECA’s here, I’ve found that place.’ I thought that was so cool; I was crying.

“I called my mom, and said, ‘This is worth every dollar of student loans that I have right now.”

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at scott.delaruelle@wcinet.com.