Bizness... As Usual
Kids get real world experience
Ken Ardner’s son, Tim, doesn’t think being a bank teller will be his lifelong career, but taking on that task at JA BizTown gave him a good idea of what a typical day is like. The Spring Grove elementary schooler found it a challenge to keep track of money, but he learned to be a team player as his group managed a bank in a make-believe town that has the look and feel of a miniature Main Street.
“BizTown helped him narrow his field and define his future,” says Ardner.
JA BizTown, a program for fifth and sixth grade students held by Junior Achievement at their facility in York, is now in its sixth year and is one of only 26 in the country. The program allows kids to experience the real world in a simulated town. This hands-on learning laboratory for children gets kids up-close-and-personal with the jobs and tasks that keep the global economy running like a well-oiled machine.
Along with the “town” bank, kids can operate a sports shop, restaurant and graphics shop. They learn about the media and how to communicate news through the town’s paper, television station and radio station. They also discover the important role of government by taking charge of city hall and the post office. If all of that wasn’t enough, there’s also a wellness center, a construction company and a realty office.
Students assigned to run the newspaper, for instance, do interviews with the other “citizens” who are running the businesses. Over a loudspeaker, the radio station’s DJ can be heard as if he is actually broadcasting over the local airwaves. The mayor is strolling around and shaking hands with potential “voters.”
“We offer this to children in this age group because they are old enough to understand the concept and take charge of the experience,” says Nancy Palks, director of JA BizTown. “For fifth and sixth graders, this is very, very real.”
So real, in fact, that students take their assigned jobs and their half day at JA BizTown very, very seriously. Candace Boyer of Etters served as a parent volunteer the day her stepson, Brady, was a real estate appraiser at JA BizTown. She got there 45 minutes early and watched as the students arrived.
“You could see the excitement in their eyes when they came in,” Boyer recalls. “It was really cool to see. Some of the girls wore skirts and high heels because of the retail jobs they were assigned, and the boy who was the mayor wore a little suit.”
But students don’t start working and spending without some preparation beforehand. Four weeks before the big day, teachers provide in-class instruction. The students learn about their role in the community and what it means to be an employee. They also learn about philanthropy, taxes, government, money management and the economy as a whole. For instance, Boyer’s step-son was excited to learn how to write checks and keep a check register.
Students explore different careers as they are told about the types of jobs and positions available at JA BizTown. They are then asked to pick their top three. Each student is interviewed to find out which job he or she is best suited for or has the most interest in. Where possible, the student is given his or her first choice. In Brady’s case, his top pick was real estate appraiser, a perfect fit since both his father and stepmother work in real estate, and since Brady loves math. During his BizTown day, he measured the size of the town buildings and then calculated what they might sell for.
“Afterward, he talked about how much fun he had,” Boyer says. “It’s just a great experience giving them a chance to see what a grown-up day is about and what it’s like to live like their parents.”
The classroom work allows the students to make the connection between education and the real world where they actually get to apply what they’ve learned. Parents have the option of serving as volunteers or “business coaches” for the day. They are purposely not placed with their own child, so they can take a more objective approach to helping the students who are running the business.
“There’s one adult coach per business,” says Palks. “We train them to develop their coaching skills. They become education partners and we tell them to look for teachable moments.”
Boyer, for example, helped the students operating the sports shop, overseeing the kids who ran the store and answering questions when the town’s “citizens” came in to purchase items. One “teachable moment” happened when the group had only one remaining of a popular item in their sports shop. Rather than disappoint their “customers” standing in line who wanted the item, the students thought they should auction it off. Boyer told them that wouldn’t happen in the real world, and that they had to sell the item to the next customer in line who wanted to buy it.
Ardner worked as a newspaper advisor and was impressed with the work ethic displayed by his group. He discovered that the experience taught the kids how to work as a team within their businesses and the entire business community.
“The student work force made it come together quite well and provided a lasting momento for the entire class,” says Ardner. “The students were reminded that the effort they made was only half of a typical workday. The hands-on application and setting is unmatched outside of the actual business world.”
Ardner adds that when the newspaper’s “photographer” finished his duties early during JA BizTown, he was asked to go outside the shop and sell newspapers on the corner.
“He did this with old time newsboy enthusiasm,” Ardner says, “calling loudly that papers were for sale.”
Palks has witnessed children enter JA BizTown a bit nervous and unsure, and then walk out after the half-day is done full of confidence along with a feeling of a job well done. She has received feedback from parents and teachers about the sense of pride that students have after serving as entrepreneurs, working as reporters rushing to meet deadlines, handling payrolls or shaking hands as the mayor.
“Children learn to be successful by experiencing success,” she says. “These young people transform before your very eyes. We are proud to be able to have this for kids.”
Lori Myers is a freelance writer living in Harrisburg.
For information on JA BizTown, visit www.jascpa.org.