Setting up for success

New Junior Achievement center provides hands-on finance, career education

Posted on Jan 30, 2020 :: New North
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Classroom learning is essential in K-12 education, but many of the most formative — and stickiest — lessons come from hands-on experiences, and the new Community First Career Exploration & Financial Literacy Center is poised to provide a variety of those.

Junior Achievement and Fox Valley Technical College, with the financial support of lead investor Community First Credit Union, partnered to bring the center to life. Other donors included Miller Electric Mfg. Co., Festival Foods, Galloway Co. and Thrivent Financial. The Community Foundation of the Fox Valley Region also provided grants totaling $733,000.

Located on the FVTC campus, the center aims to provide 15,000 fourth- through 12th-graders each year with financial literacy skills and career preparation experiences.

Michael Frohna, president of Junior Achievement of Wisconsin, says the mission of the 79-year-old organization has evolved over the years. It started with a financial literacy emphasis and a desire to empower young people to take responsibility for their financial success. Today, its work has expanded to include helping students prepare for careers, with an added emphasis on entrepreneurship.

The organization, along with FVTC President and CEO Susan May, had long wanted to build a capstone facility like the one JA runs in Milwaukee. A standalone facility will help students take their classroom learning to the next level, Frohna says.

“We want to give people the hands-on experience to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom in a safe environment where mistakes can happen all the time and no one really cares,” he says.

The facility, which will serve the entire New North region, will allow JA to deliver two programs that give students experiential learning opportunities. JA BizTown targets older elementary school students, while JA Finance Park provides programming for eighth- and ninth-graders.

With BizTown, fourth- and fifth-graders learn about key aspects of the economy and start to assess areas of interest in a broad way — Do they like work with their hands? Do they like to interact with people? They can then begin to identify careers that align with those interests.

The learning begins in the classroom with lessons that prepare students for their visit to the center and their BizTown experience. In BizTown, each student gets assigned a job and receives a paycheck. The space is divided into 12 storefronts, each led by a professional or higher education student mentor. Students then set up a business, perform tasks and invite others in the “city” to come and participate.

When students get paid, they go to the credit union and deposit the money so they can begin to understand that the funds they deposit are the funds they use to make purchases. That connection is important, as a recent survey showed that many students thought using a debit card meant using someone else’s money, Frohna says.

With Finance Park, eighth- and ninth-graders learn about personal finances and topics such as loans, credit, insurance, assessing housing options and the cost of having kids. Each student gets a lifestyle scenario — such as single or married with children — and chooses a job that matches his or her interests. This helps them test assumptions and shows how unexpected expenses like a broken refrigerator can derail financial planning.

“Very quickly, they realize that they run out of money before they have all their needs met, and they have to make decisions about not buying a sports car, or not buying a house, or renting for a while or taking public transportation,” Frohna says.

In addition to the hands-on learning experiences the center provides, May says it gives students much-needed exposure to careers. It’s designed to represent as many career clusters as possible.

“I think career exploration at those earlier ages is absolutely critical. Kids are making decisions about their futures and their careers, and if they don’t have some exposure to everything, how are they going to make good decisions for themselves?” she says.

Incorporating a STEM focus was a priority for May. She says FVTC is uniquely well-positioned to present these types of careers, and the center will include STEM career exploration programming for high school students and STEM curriculum training for high school teachers.

In addition to corporate sponsorship, the center will need a strong roster of volunteers to help make it successful. Getting involved presents a mutually beneficial opportunity for companies — in connecting with a future workforce and engaging in team building — and students, May says.

“I think if the whole community rallies around and gets engaged with this, I think they’re going to … have a great time, a great experience and really feel like they’re making a difference for these young people by doing so,” she says.