The idea of having your first business class the same year you learned how to write the alphabet sounds far-fetched.
But for Junior Achievement kids, learning the roles that different people play in the economy is part of the ABCs of becoming a successful professional.
Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania is a volunteer-driven K-12 program that goes beyond traditional school lessons to teach kids practical life and business skills. The organization, which is currently involved in 120 school districts and has reached over 60,000 children, seeks to not only inspire kids to pursue ambitious careers, but also to give them the necessary tools to help them achieve their long-term professional goals.
The organization delivers carefully developed age-appropriate lessons and activities that are executed by its volunteer force, which is made up of everyone from entrepreneurs to retirees to college students. The volunteers go right into the classroom with the students and spend a whole day guiding them through hands-on lessons that are both educational and entertaining. And according to Vice President of Development Bill Lucas, that approach can have an impact that can change a student's entire life. "In a classroom of 25 or 30 kids, you won't have a massive influence on every student," he says. "But these kids remember what they learned through the program. A lot of the high school kids can look back and tell you exactly what they learned when Junior Achievement came to their classroom when they were in fifth grade."
Lucas explains that because kids all learn differently, the JA program uses a blended learning model to help guarantee that students of all learning styles can absorb the lessons being taught. One example of this process involves teaching second graders a seemingly advanced concept by breaking it down in a way they can understand: The students are told they're working for a donut factory and given punch cards, crayons to put on the 'icing,' and stickers to mix in the milk, eggs, and sugar. Then, half the kids are split up into groups of four or five students, and the other half is left to work by themselves. All the kids are then instructed to make as many donuts as they can in five minutes.
"It's teaching the kids the difference between unit production and assembly line production," explains Lucas. "By the end, the kids see that they made more donuts by working in an assembly line, but the quality is higher on unit production."
While some people may be skeptical that just one day per year could have a lifelong effect on a child's life, Junior Achievement's results speak for themselves:
Adults who were in the JA program as kids have 20 percent higher median salaries and earn about $11,000 more than adults who weren't in the program.
20 percent of the kids in JA go into the exact same field as the volunteer they worked with.
JA alumni are 143 percent more likely to become entrepreneurs than the general population.
Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank investor Mark Cuban (whose first business venture involved going door to door selling plastic garbage bags) is a JA alum.
The skills taught through JA are particularly beneficial to kids who want to grow up and start their own business. Lucas emphasizes, however, that the purpose of the program is not to push kids towards a single career path, but to give them the knowledge and resources required to achieve whatever goals they set their mind to. "Yes, education can be a direct influence in making more money, but we don't push kids toward a four-year degree," he says. "We open kids' eyes to a plethora of careers and educational fields they can study, whether that's a scientific degree, a trade, or living the 'American dream' of entrepreneurship."
With a 90 percent volunteer retention rate, JA is a rewarding program not only for the students, but also the adults who have helped give the organization impact thousands of kids in the Pittsburgh area. If you're interested in getting involved with the program, visit the Junior Achievement of Western PA website to view the current list of volunteer opportunities near you. You never know if your influence will make a kid want to be just like you when they grow up.