Elementary school students no longer have to wait to grow up and can learn about finance in a mini-replica of Central Kentucky’s economics.
Junior Achievement BizTown is an interactive town simulation where elementary school students operate businesses for a day. The partnership between Fayette County public schools and Junior Achievement of the Bluegrass teaches students how to manage money and how the workforce works.
JA BizTown has “storefront” sponsors that provide space for the students’ version of businesses.
Students have to opportunity to run Central Kentucky businesses like Toyota, the University of Kentucky, Chick-fil-A, LEX 18, KentuckyOne Health, Forcht Bank, iHeart Media, Keeneland, Kentucky Society of CPAs, Kentucky Utilities, Scanlon Family Philanthropy Center, UK HealthCare, UPS and the Lexington Herald-Leader.
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The spaces mirror what the actual companies look like in the real world and were designed by each businesses. For instance, the JA BizTown Toyota factory has a Camry hanging from its ceiling and UK HealthCare provided equipment that takes blood pressure of the students’ customers.
Leighton Harris, a fifth-grader from Athens-Chilesburg Elementary, was the mayor when he and his classmates visited JA BizTown. He applied for the job and his teachers voted him into office. During the day, Leighton’s office in city hall collected taxes from the other businesses and tried to get students to “vote” on a survey about their JA BizTown experience.
“It makes me the leader of the whole JA BizTown today, so I am happy,” said Leighton, who noted that he has led other groups before and would like to be the mayor of Lexington one day.
JA President Lynn Hudgins said before a school comes to BizTown, students complete 12 hours of curriculum at their school that focuses on financial literacy, community economics, workforce readiness and entrepreneurship. The program is geared toward upper elementary students, especially fifth graders, she said.
At the school, students are either assigned job roles, such as the CEO or CFO of a business, or have a job interview with their teacher.
When the students come to JA BizTown, they are trained for their roles. Students also receive JA BizTown money in the forms of debit card, a checkbook and paper money. When they receive their first paycheck from their job, students have to deposit it at the bank. The next check is cashed with direct deposit.
For lunch, students are placed in different groups and take a work break when their group is called. During the break, students can spend money at other businesses and buy items from slap bracelets to a shout-out over the intercom at the radio station.
Junior Achievement Senior Education Manager Ron Wigglesworth said all students have $14 to $16 to spend and JA BizTown mirrors the real world as much as possible. He said, for example, if a student loses a debit card, he or she loses money.
“They are getting real-world experience,” Wigglesworth said. “They are finding out what its like to be an employee for the day. They are finding out what it is like to be a member of a team.”
The JA BizTown opened its doors in January at JA’s new building at 2420 Spurr Rd., but the project has been five years in the making. Hudgins and Wigglesworth said they visited several BizTowns in cities such as Atlanta, San Diego, Louisville and Nashville.
The town is a permanent facility and is open all year, offering summer camp opportunities, too.
Hudgins said 24 or so schools have visited JA BizTown since it opened. The Lexington JA BizTown is funded privately with sponsor contributions. Up to 130 students can visit BizTown at a time.
University of Kentucky Executive Vice President for Fiance and Administration Eric N. Monday is also on the board of directors for Junior Achievement of the Bluegrass.
“At the University of Kentucky, every day we ask ourselves, ‘How can we best help our students succeed?’” Monday said via press release. “I’m honored to be a part of an organization that prepares and empowers young people in such an important way. It mirrors the efforts that are driving success at our university.”
Brad Lovell, Keeneland vice president and chief information officer, said the racetrack saw JA BizTown as an opportunity to teach fifth grade students about the importance of agribusiness and the horse industry in Central Kentucky.
Lovell, who is also on Junior Achievement of the Bluegrass’ board of directors, said he is passionate about giving students opportunities to learn about financial literacy.
“Unfortunately, this type of education does not offer itself in the classroom,” Lovell said. “Junior Achievement provides that opportunity through its volunteers.”
JA BizTown’s goal is to have elementary students from the 35 counties that JA of the Bluegrass serves visit each day. That could mean BizTown will affect 12,000 Kentucky children.
“When we have kids here, we can come over here and watch them actually learn, and that is the greatest thing to actually see this in action,” Hudgins said.