Cover Story: From Learning to Earning

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Posted By on July 3, 2019

Junior Achievement of Arizona gives kids the skills they need to succeed

By Karen Werner

On any given school day, 200 employees roam a Tempe cityscape, hard at work. There are doctors and marketing professionals, TV producers and bank tellers, folks manning the counter at Cane’s. Only they aren’t your typical workforce. They’re fourth through sixth graders at BizTown, the pint-sized workplace at Junior Achievement of Arizona.

The program teaches students how an economy works, their role as both workers and consumers, and what it’s like to be contributing members of society for a day. But it’s a lot more than fun and games.

“We are teaching financial literacy, entrepreneurship, work readiness and about the flow of goods and services,” said Katherine Kemmeries Cecala, the CEO of Junior Achievement of Arizona.

Cecala knows a thing or two about these topics. An industrial engineer and lawyer by training, she holds an MBA and has served as chief operating officer of Valley of the Sun United Way and interim CEO of Friendly House. But when she learned about the number of kids JA’s programs serve, she knew it was the perfect place to leave a mark on the next generation. “I was just delighted to become part of it,” she said about joining the nonprofit nearly four years ago.

JA serves more than 80,000 K-12 students in Arizona each year, giving them the skills they need to manage money, succeed in the workplace and be problem solvers in adulthood.

“The number-one thing that most businesses say is missing is critical thinking,” Cecala said. “They say, ‘We can’t find kids to hire.’”

That’s where JA steps in.

The BizTown workday was underway for one 10-year-old boy, who was serving in the role of CEO at Wells Fargo when the student working as his chief financial officer was sick. After a momentary panic, he tapped a teller and trained her for the job. “Now, that person isn’t as skilled as the other student who had been working within the class, so he’s helping train her as he goes. They’re short-staffed, so they get backed up with people in the bank,” Cecala explained. “So that CEO goes and fills in and starts to create some efficiencies. Ten years from now, when he’s at work and has a problem, he can say, ‘I’ve done this. I know what I need to do.’”

 Indeed, research shows that kids in Junior Achievement have 34 percent higher critical thinking skills than their peers who don’t get JA training. Not only that, JA students are 30 percent more likely to get a bachelor’s degree and 67 percent more likely to get a master’s.

Why? JA helps kids connect the dots between training, financial literacy and success. The organization partners with about 400 schools statewide to provide more than 20 classroom-or simulation-based programs to primarily low-income students each year.

The curriculum is created by educational experts at the national level, but it’s delivered by nearly 8,000 volunteer mentors throughout Arizona. When they go into the classroom, they talk about their lives and careers, often exposing kids to jobs that they never knew existed.

“We try to make sure we have as diverse a volunteer pool as possible so that we can better match the kids,” Cecala said. “We have volunteers, as well as people on our board, who were in extreme poverty or homeless and managed to pull themselves out. They can give that history of, ‘I once was like this, and this is what I was able to do.’”

But it’s not enough to hear the stories and receive the lessons. Students must experience them, too. Each year, JA Finance Park helps some 4,000 junior high and high school students learn about personal budgeting and how to navigate the financial waters of the future. In real-life simulations, they are randomly assigned jobs, salaries, children, spouses and other criteria from which they have to budget their lives and make choices. Where will they live? What will they drive? How will they pay for insurance, childcare and vacation?

“They’re shocked at gross versus net,” Cecala said. “Suddenly they see that the people who had more training or had certain types of careers are doing better. And they start to think, ‘If I’m going to want this kind of life, I might need to do some of these things a little differently.’”

Savings, credit, interest rates, loans and other aspects of personal finance — these topics are baked into JA’s curriculum, and it’s information students often don’t get anywhere else. In fact, studies show that parents are very reluctant to talk about money with their kids. “It’s a very uncomfortable subject,” Cecala said. “More parents are comfortable talking about sex than talking about money. So most kids do not get training about money in the household. When we’re able to go into the classroom and teach these kids concepts that the schools aren’t teaching, they are eager to learn.”

For one young student who attended JA You’re Hired, those concepts were life-changing. In this program, high schoolers learn about interviewing, résumé writing, working in teams, problem solving and more. A volunteer from the University of Phoenix was so impressed by this young woman, she was hired as an intern. A single mom, that student went on to get a job, move into administration and attend the University of Phoenix. “She wanted her son to see what she was able to accomplish,” Cecala said. “She’s still there and is very successful.”

For more than 60 years, JA has empowered the futures of more than 2 million Arizona students, but there’s still a long way to go. Although the organization is all over the state, more than 100 schools remain on the waiting list, and JA would like to reach more rural schools and homeschooled children. To help do this, JA is working with the University of Advancing Technology to create a free digital financial-literacy game that Cecala hopes to pilot this fall.

“We’re trying to make sure that while we are very relevant today that we’re staying relevant for the future that these kids are going to experience,” she said. That’s especially important because one in three alumni credits JA for influencing their future career decisions.

While fifth graders see BizTown as a bustling kid-sized town, it doesn’t look like the economy of the future. “We have lots of storefronts, but in five to 10 years, the majority of people won’t be working for companies. They’ll be self-employed, contracting, consulting,” Cecala said.

To better reflect the gig economy, JA is talking to companies, universities, thought leaders and futurists and planning to do some remodeling in BizTown. “We don’t know what the jobs of the future will be, but we do know there will be more technology,” Cecala said. “I know that you’ll need to be more nimble about moving from one place to the other, so we’ll be creating more co-working space. I hope within a couple of years to have it look more like a smart city.”

Of course, all of this takes money, which JA is working hard to raise. “We would love to serve every child in this state in the K-12 realm, so they will all be better prepared,” Cecala said.

But she acknowledges that there’s a disconnect when it comes to public perception of JA. “People are often surprised that we serve primarily low-income kids and that we are funded by philanthropy, not by schools.”

It takes about $34 for every child JA serves, but those dollars often have a ripple effect.

That effect can be seen in a letter from a seventh grader who wrote to thank JA for teaching personal budgeting in his school. As part of the lesson, he brought home a budget worksheet, because his mom said they didn’t have enough money to pay their bills every month and she had to pick and choose which ones to pay.

“That boy sat down with his mom and together they made out a budget,” Cecala said. “His mom was excited because it would help her credit score. But the boy was more excited because they were able to budget in such a way that they had $10 left over at the end of every month.”

And he got to keep that money for an allowance.

“To me, that exemplifies what Junior Achievement is about because not only did we change his life, we changed his family’s life too,” Cecala said.

To learn more, go to jaaz.org.

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