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Junior Achievement brings real-life learning to classrooms

  • Students from Rice Creek School in Port Wentworth stand with Marshall Tuck, right, corporate small business officer at Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., who serves as a Junior Achievement community volunteer. (Photo special to the Savannah Morning News)

Most everyone remembers the sticker shock that comes with that first adult grocery trip without mom and dad to foot the bill or receiving a first paycheck only to be surprised by the amount deducted for taxes. But for the last three decades, Junior Achievement has been working with schools to better prepare students for taxes, careers and families.

“With 25 years in banking, I really saw a need for (financial literacy),” said Patrece Grant, director of programs and education for Junior Achievement in coastal Georgia and Augusta.

Currently in Chatham County the organization serves about 15,000 students and hundreds more in Effingham County middle and high schools through their financial literary, entrepreneurship and career readiness focused programs, all of which align with Georgia Performance Standards, the states curriculum.

“We’re really like a tool box for a teacher. It’s an enhancement of something they’re already doing,” said director of development, Robert Grant, who is unrelated to Patrece Grant.

Johnathon Barrett, vice president of statewide operations for JA of Georgia, said overall the programs help students understand that education is the key to so many things in life.

“They're able to see that connection between education and the real world,” Barrett said of the student’s involvement.

Barrett said the programs also give students the ability to identify and explore their strengths.

“You don’t want to just go out and get a job; you want to have a career. You want to have a life and have something to do that you really enjoy doing and that gives you fulfillment, so over the years we’ve developed new programs that teach children about the different career clusters out there,” he said.

“We’re getting them to explore themselves and ask the questions of what it is they feel good about doing and what they do well and that will transcend into a lifelong career.”

Preparing for careers, and life after school

For elementary school students, the programs focus on the basics and add on with each grade level. The programs also bring in trained high school students to teach certain aspects of the program.

“They start teaching them early on about needs and wants and how to count money. And those are all things that are aligned with the education standards,” Patrece Grant said of the elementary school curriculum.

For sixth- and seventh-grade students, the focus turns to careers and what decisions made to be made to path the way for success.

Suzanna Shiver, a teacher at Coastal Middle School, said the career programs target students at a critical age and it also lets students explore things that they aren’t interested in, which she said is just as important as knowing what they’re passionate about.

“… It’s OK, because I can tell them you better make plans if you don’t ever want to do that because you need to make a plan. There are specialty programs in high school and if they can’t grab on to what they’re interest are it’s very difficult to prepare themselves for the future,” Shiver said.

“We always explain to them if they don’t like something that’s fine, too.”

Shiver said with everything the state curriculum requires her to teach she was leery of bringing the JA program into the class room at first, but the student response has been phenomenal and the programs have helped her in her own lesson plans.

“They always do some sort of lesson where they work with their hands… They lessons are very thought out and I actually carry a lot of what they do back into my classroom,” she said.

“… I’m glad I brought (JA) in to the classroom. Their approach has helped me and when you look at it like that it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Lessons range from conversational to hands on activities such as creating a personal brand and identifying what they’d like to be known for, and both Shiver and community volunteer Amy Strickling said the students are always excited for the future and eager to learn.

“We present a lot of opportunities to them, college, community college, trade school, so there’s not really a defined, ‘this is the right way,’ we try to present all of the options to them,” said Strickling, a senior accountant with Hancock Askew, who volunteers in Shiver’s class.

“… It’s really cool to see their ambitions and what they hope for. To have the house, to have the family and have the nice car and see them work hard and connect the dots and know if I make a good choice, that’s going to be mine one day,” she said.

Eighth-grade students participate in the Finance Park program, which is a virtual program in which students create an avatar and are randomly assigned with a profession and salary. From there they choose a variety of factors to their virtual life budget such as dining out, charitable giving, health care, home improvements, and entertainment.

“Students can choose real life things such as Atlanta Falcons tickets. They’ll go for the sky box, VIP room. They want the $5,000 tickets and then all of a sudden they’ll realize I can’t eat, I can’t drive my car or pay my mortgage if I buy those tickets,” Robert Grant said. “It sounds so basic, but for a lot of those students it’s a huge thing.”

The high school programs add a focus on entrepreneurship with JA BizTown.Robert Grant said those programs hope to capture the many talented students in local public schools.

“What we want to teach, too, is that we believe these children have skills — and that’s great — but we want to teach them how to run a business also and give them the business sense to know how to go out and get a loan,” he said.

Aside from being in the school system, JA has been involved in the City of Savannah’s Summer 500 program, which places area high school students into paying summer jobs and internships.

“The personal finance curriculum was taught to all of the students who went through the Summer 500 program before they actually started work and it was a huge benefit,” said Patrece Grant.

As part of their soft skills training the students were required to open a checking account and have their checks directly deposited to their account.

“It was neat to tie all that together. It was the ultimate in hands on learning,” added Robert Grant.

Community connections

Throughout the programs, JA partners with various volunteers like Strickling and businesses, including Gulfstream Aerospace, Colonial Oil, SunTrust bank, Georgia Pacific who serve as classroom volunteers, providing students with their personal stories and experiences about the business world.

“We use our corporate community volunteers to come in and talk to the students and I think that’s a huge benefit to our students because they get to talk to people in the community who have been through all this — the ups and the downs — and can ask them questions,” Patrece Grant said.

The organization serves as the largest liaison between the business community and school systems across the state and particularly in this area. Barrett said the push to get financial and business-based programs into the classroom is ever-present and often the community doesn’t realize that JA is filling that need.

“We’ve been doing this for a long while and we do it very well,” he said.

All of the organization’s funding is locally sourced through grants as well as foundation, individual and corporate donations. The organization’s success in the community wouldn’t be possible without those partnerships and volunteers who donate time and truly believe in what JA is doing, the group said.

“JA is truly transforming education. I get so excited about it because I really believe we’re bringing real life to students and we’re making what they’re learning in textbooks jump off the page and they can see how it’s relevant in their lives,” Patrece Grant said of JA’s involvement in Chatham County.

“And to me, I think that’s the most important thing and our curriculum does that for them.”

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