At first glance, it looks like elementary students having fun on a field trip with their classmates. But a trip to Biz Town at Junior Achievement of the Bluegrass is so much more than that.
JA Biz Town serves fifth-grade classrooms with a series of in-class lessons on entrepreneurial and personal finance skills that culminate in a day-long visit to a fully interactive, simulated town. There, they put their new business knowledge to the test, launching and working in businesses, opening bank accounts, paying their employees, voting in an election, and learning about the importance of philanthropy.
“If they call it a field trip, I am usually pretty quick to point out to them that Biz Town is not a field trip,” said Ron Wigglesworth, a former high school principal who serves as senior education manager at JA of the Bluegrass. “This is a culminating event. This is where the kids actually get to put into practice what they have been learning.”
The simulated town, which resembles a small shopping mall, opened its doors in January, and has already served more than 2,500 students. It is located inside the old Linlee Elementary School building on Spurr Road in Lexington, where JA of the Bluegrass is leasing nearly 13,000 s.f. from Fayette County Schools to operate their programs.
Biz Town is designed for fifth-grade students, but the program also can be utilized by fourth- and sixth-grade classes. Participating classrooms are provided with curriculum and supplemental materials, including a 250-page teacher guidebook, a classroom kit with games and posters, and student workbooks. Each student also receives a checkbook, debit card and health card, Wigglesworth said.
“The lessons center around financial literacy, how a community economy works, workforce habits and being a team member, how you run a business, entrepreneurship,” Wigglesworth said.
The curriculum correlates with Kentucky’s Core Content for Asssessment in math, social studies, and practical living while focusing on 21st-century job skills, including soft skills such as being a team player, communicating with others, problem solving, and thinking critically.
“Unfortunately, we hear time and again that many students are lacking the basic skills to successfully engage in the workforce and economic community,” said Lynn Hudgins, president of JA of the Bluegrass.
One of the biggest challenges Kentucky employers face is finding qualified workers with the right skills for the jobs they have available. Less than 10 percent of Kentucky employers believe the overall workforce has good skills, according to a 2015 survey by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. More than a quarter of those employers said they have trouble finding jobseekers with good soft skills.
“This is both a crisis and an opportunity for Central Kentucky,” said David Royse, chairman of the JA of the Bluegrass board of directors.
Junior Achievement, founded in 1919, is the world’s largest organization dedicated to educating students about work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy through experiential, hands-on programs. The Bluegrass chapter, founded in 1963, reaches more than 20,000 students per year with its classroom curriculum and volunteer programs, which show them “how to generate wealth and effectively manage it, how to create jobs which make their communities more robust, and how to apply entrepreneurial thinking to the workplace,” according to the JA website.
The addition of Biz Town to the Bluegrass chapter’s lineup has created a unique opportunity to introduce key life skills to young students.
“Young people who have been exposed to the various Junior Achievement classroom programs and the ‘real-life’ experiential learning experience at JA Biz Town gain an early understanding of the concepts and values that are crucial to attaining career success and fulfillment in a rapidly changing world,” Royse said.
A day at Biz Town
Biz Town is intricately designed to teach students about what it means to own and operate a business on a day-to-day basis. Local companies – including Chick-fil-A, Forcht Bank, Kentucky Utilities, UPS, iHeart Media, Keeneland, Scanlon Family Philanthropy Center, Toyota, UK Healthcare, Kentucky Society of Certified Public Accountants, the University of Kentucky, LEX 18, and Lexington Herald-Leader – sponsored and decorated storefronts where the students “work.” There is also Biz Town City Hall and one open storefront, for which JA is still seeking a community partner/donor.
“Our storefront partners have made a significant investment in our young people because they recognize the importance of introducing students to the ‘real world’ of work, business and personal finance, early and often,” Royse said. “Additionally, we are hopeful that those organizations will benefit from their exposure to the students, parents, teachers and volunteers who come to ‘live and work’ in Biz Town for a day.”
After attending orientation, students elect a mayor, launch their businesses, discuss business loans and banking, participate in job training, conduct staff meetings and make marketing plans, deposit their paychecks, go to lunch, shop at the businesses, and participate in other activities. It is a full day of learning and fun, but is also a lot of work, Wigglesworth said.
At the end of the day, when asked how they feel, students often say they are tired, he said. “We say that’s how your parents feel, too, at the end of a long day,” Wigglesworth said.
Experiencing Biz Town often opens doors for students and helps them realize their potential, Hudgins said. The program helps students connect the dots between what they learn in school and the real world, and sometimes it opens up career options they had never before considered.
“JA Biz Town/JA Finance Park is a very focused experience that we believe will be a ‘game changer’ for our students and the entire Central Kentucky community,” said Melissa Bacon, board chair for Fayette County Public Schools. “Our kids will enjoy an opportunity of lifetime in which they can truly make adult decisions and actually learn first-hand how an economy works.”
Five years in the making
Biz Town opened Jan. 10 after a five-year fundraising and planning campaign. Many businesses got on board right away, Hudgins said, and others needed to see the JA of Kentuckiana’s Biz Town in Louisville before making a commitment. The Lexington Biz Town is modeled after Sam Swope Biz Town, as the Louisville program is officially named. It opened in 2004.
JA of Kentuckiana, founded in 1949, also operates a JA Finance Park program, where middle school students are immersed in a reality-based, decision-making process that addresses individual and family budget considerations such as housing, transportation, food, utilities, health care, investments, philanthropy and banking, according to JA. They learn about the implications of financial decisions, consider the options available, and construct and live within a budget.
Since the two programs began, more than 250,000 students have participated in JA of Kentuckiana’s Biz Town and Finance Park programs.
JA of the Bluegrass is currently planning its own Finance Park program. It will be housed in the same structure as Biz Town, but the curriculum will change to accommodate middle school students during certain weeks of the year. Finance Park will open to students in December of 2017, Hudgins said.
Junior Achievement has a host of other programs designed to prepare young people to succeed in the global economy. To learn more about how your business can donate to or volunteer, visit juniorachievement.org/web/ja-bluegrass or juniorachievement.org/web/ja-kentuckiana.
Lorie Hailey is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at email@example.com.