It all adds up in 'BizTown'
ALLEMAN - Few people would argue that two plus two equals anything but four. If comprehending that was the only requirement for being truly financially literate, life for most people might be pretty straightforward and fairly easy. But in reality, financial literacy is indeed much more than just basic arithmetic.
No one knows this better than the fifth graders at Central Elementary in the North Polk Community School District. Thanks to the commitment and investment by the school district to ensure students receive financial literacy education, and thanks to the dedication and skill of fifth grade teachers Connie Boyd and Cathleen Watters, these 10-year-old future tax-paying citizens are well versed and equipped in the tenets of financial literacy -- knowing how to make appropriate personal economic choices, understanding the role of economy in society, and using entrepreneurial skills to enhance workplace productivity and career options.
Iowa school districts enjoy some flexibility in implementing classroom curriculum concerning the financial literacy component included in the 21st century skills essential concepts and skills outlined in the Iowa Core. The North Polk School District made financial literacy a priority long before it was included in the kindergarten-through-twelfth grade statewide academic standards. The district’s method of choice for fifth graders is the Junior Achievement (JA) of Central Iowa JA BizTown experience.
“It’s a wonderful experience for the students,” said Watters, a fifth grade social studies teacher in her fourth year of teaching. “It’s very in depth. JA provides wonderful resources for us. They provide a teacher’s guide, student workbooks and checkbooks. You can tailor the experience to meet the needs of your students. You can add extra elements to enhance the experience. It’s a great way to get the kids thinking about what job they might want to do and have the experience of working together. I am so grateful that the students get to experience it. I just can’t say enough positive things about it.”
Junior Achievement, a non-profit organization funded by businesses and individual donations, self-describes as “the world’s largest organization dedicated to educating students in grades K-12 about entrepreneurship, work readiness and financial literacy through experiential, hands-on programs.” In addition to a small staff, JA relies on nearly 2,000 volunteers annually to help deliver their programs.
Specifically, JA BizTown is a program that “combines in-class learning with a day-long visit to this fully interactive simulated town facility. The program helps students connect the dots between what they learn in school and the real world.”
Connie Boyd, a 30-year teaching veteran and fifth grade social studies teacher at Central, says the JA BizTown curriculum meets many of the fifth grade Iowa Core requirements.
“In doing a math unit, we were talking about debit and credit,” she said. “It was amazing how I could apply the concepts they learned for JA BizTown to the regular math curriculum. We discuss the economy, transactions, why there are banks, savings, spending, and what happens when you write a check. Students indicate their job preferences and interests, apply and interview with our principal, and guidance counselor for jobs, apply for a bank account, fill out loan applications and figure out what their costs are to run a business.”
And what students learn in elementary school impacts learning throughout their educational journey.
“At the elementary level, the foundations are more in the math skills,” Watters said. “The economy and economics are not easy concepts. They are complicated and complex. Having the JA BizTown experience helps them apply those concepts when they get older. It’s an experience they can draw on with schema and remember things about positive and negative numbers, understanding interest, percent of whole, etc.”
Middle school students in the North Polk District have the opportunity to experience curriculum pertaining to financial literacy in exploratory classes. At the high school level, a financial literacy class is required of all juniors and seniors in order to graduate.
Julianne Manock, a North Polk High School teacher who teaches the financial literacy class, reports that when she asks students if they have written out a check before, the students respond saying, “Yes! In fifth grade for JA BizTown!”
High school students also participate in the Junior Achievement Stock Market Challenge. This event is a one day simulated stock market trading challenge in which North Polk high school students are buying, selling and analyzing the risk and reward of their fictitious investments. Students compete against other area high schools to determine which team has the highest return.
“The JA BizTown experience sticks with them,” Watters said. “We’ll have students that have older siblings, and their older siblings will fill them in, and then the fifth grade siblings are excited for JA BizTown for most of the year. They’re excited to be a part of it. Every year there are kids who say, ‘Can’t we do this again?’”
Central’s fifth graders spend about three months preparing for their JA BizTown experience. The preparatory curriculum consists of four basic units:
- Financial Literacy, including lessons about Financial Services, Checking Accounts, Savings Accounts and Debit Cards;
- Community and Economy, including lessons about Circular Flow of Economic Activity, Free Enterprise, and Public Goods and Services;
- Work Readiness, including lessons about Interests and Skills, and Applying for a Job; and
- Business Management, including lessons about Business Costs, Setting Prices, and Visit Preparation.
Understanding that students learn in a variety of ways, the JA BizTown program is designed to support differentiated learning styles with strong cross-curricular, interdisciplinary connections. One assignment involves language arts where students write friendly letters to classmates utilizing correct components of a letter. The friendly letters are then delivered to the recipients by students employed at the postal service in JA BizTown.
Financial literacy in young people is inseparably tied to their adult future and to the economic future of Iowa. Both education and business communities can work together to help students understand the merits of financial literacy and the affect choices have on success as adults.
“JA BizTown involves the community so much because the parents have to volunteer to be a part of the day,” Boyd said. “Parents are essential. Without their volunteering it wouldn’t work. They even have to go to a training for a couple hours before our JA BizTown experience, so they know what to expect and what their role is, too.”
Fourteen Central Elementary parent volunteers help 127 students over two days successfully run their businesses during JA BizTown.
Following student participation in the JA BizTown simulation day, students debrief with teachers and reflect on their experience with further discussion of relevant classroom learning and its impact on their future plans and goals.
“When we come back and we talk about the experience, the students say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I would have to be on my feet this long!’” Boyd said. “It’s an all-day event. We are down there at 9 a.m. and leave at 2 p.m. Just going to the bank, having that checkbook, managing their finances, holding a job, running a business, makes them grow up a little bit and realize adults really do have lots of responsibility.”
Reality hits! JA BizTown opens
Upon entering JA BizTown at JA headquarters in Des Moines, one feels the undeniable fervor of a city alive with possibility. So much so, it’s easy to forget that those in charge are 10 years old and what’s occurring is simulation. Every quadrant of the room is filled with activity and everyone wears an expression of intensity and purpose. Music selected by student disc jockeys plays over loudspeakers while overtones of conversations filled with directions, questions, and decisions resounds throughout the premises. Clearly, all are poised, well prepared, excited to participate and intent on executing a productive, successful day at JA BizTown.
Parents and volunteers, including Ryan Osborn, current president of JA of Central Iowa, greet the young citizens and are stationed throughout the community, providing guidance, supervision, answering questions and helping students navigate the day as successful entrepreneurs, employees, and citizens.
Student CEO’s for each business begin the day by speaking to the entire community about their goods and services. Dan Mart, superintendent for North Polk Community School District, mingles with students at City Hall and prepares for the opening ceremonies which includes swearing the student mayor and district attorney into office.
“JA BizTown is something that someone really needs to see,” Mart said. “When you’re here you understand that there is really no way we can replicate this in a classroom. This all-day learning is so important for students. The financial literacy component and the hands-on experience that’s involved with all this is so tremendous. They just can’t get it all in the classroom.
“It’s more than financial literacy. They all are assigned roles, they have duties, they have responsibilities, so it’s the citizenship, too. Preparing them to be good citizens as well as a good workers for our communities.”
Months of preparation are over. Students are anxious to be chief executive officers, chief financial officers, reporters, publishers, photographers, utility workers, politicians, bankers, book store employees, sales managers, health care professionals, talk show hosts, mail carriers, production managers, philanthropists, construction engineers, attorneys, restauranteurs, disc jockeys, distribution center managers, STEM field experts…the list goes on, the possibilities infinite.
This is where the rubber hits the road. The newly acquired knowledge and skills are being put into action and put to the test. Soon, the city is humming with activity, deals are being brokered, goods and services rendered, paychecks issued, paychecks cashed – an economy thrives, a community is born, and young people discover their strengths and think about their future.
And then something unexpected happens. The lights go out in two of the main street businesses. Almost in unison, business owners shout out, “Did we pay our bill this month?” and immediately dispatch representatives to discuss the matter with the utility company.
Concepts grasped. Lessons learned. No worries. The future is in good hands.
Visit the Iowa Department of Education Financial Literacy webpage.
Learn more about JA BizTown.
Tanner Twedt, Utility Engineer for the Upright Utility/Realty Company in JA BizTown
“I take measurements and calculations for the company.”
“I learned that it might be difficult for you in the future if you don’t write down what you bought at a store. You might make a mistake and you might be bugging somebody for money.”
“My favorite part is I like math and so I had to do a lot of calculations, which I thought was pretty fun.”
“I am having a good time at JA BizTown because it’s helping me see what it might be like in the future, and good knowledge for what I might be doing. I’ll have experience with it.”
Kate Tyrrel, Bank CFO in JA BizTown
“You have to make sure you don’t bounce checks because if you bounce checks there are fines and you don’t want to have a fine.”
“I love doing the invoices. I have to be accurate in my work.”
“If you’re in a job you have to be able to do that job and you should be able to like that job, because if you don’t like it just won’t be fun.”
Jenna Tuttle, photographer for the Publishing Center in JA BizTown
“JA BizTown is a hard working town, and you have to work as hard as you can to write checks and do everything you can to succeed.”
“I think handing out the magazines we create and having people enjoy the photos is the best part.
It has been a very fun experience!”