Junior Achievement teaches students how to be economically sufficient through hands-on activities and real-world experiences.
Ethorn Bullard’s first business experience was making jewelry. He fashioned necklaces and bracelets, earrings and even complete sets. It may not have been his vision for a business when he moved from the Bahamas to Tulsa at age 17 at the invitation of his cousin, but it worked.
Partnering with seven other young entrepreneurs as the AKABling company, the group sold its products to friends and family.
In the end, the principal movers and shakers behind the company — all high school students from different schools — walked away with a profit. And the knowledge to build another business, make it solvent and potentially conquer the wild world of economics.
“We went from scratch all the way to the end,” from learning how to raise capital to liquidating the company, Bullard says about his first experiences with Junior Achievement (JA), a nonprofit organization that teaches real-world economic lessons to students through hands-on activities.
With current economic instability, the lessons JA teaches future business leaders have only grown in importance, says Belynda Clanton, vice president of JA Programs, Junior Achievement of Eastern Oklahoma.
“As you hear on the news, the turmoil right now, this is a reflection of a lot of things,” she says. “This is what the (JA) curriculum has always been focused on. Being financially literate, balancing your checkbook, risky investments, long-term investments — these are all concepts we’re trying to teach the students.”
JA offers five to seven lessons per program for students from kindergarten through 12th grade, with the activities and lessons tailored to fit each grade.
“This is real-life, real-world learning,” Clanton says. “Students are encouraged to apply the academics they learn in school to a real-world setting. It’s all hands-on. And with community volunteers along with teachers, it reinforces the concept.”
In addition to the classroom lessons, JA also features two Capstone Programs, the JA BizTown and JA Investor Challenge.
BizTown is a life-sized recreation of a small city, where middle school students spend a day operating businesses, writing checks and even electing a mayor.
“They say things that make us smile: ‘I know now why my parents are so tired.’ ‘I didn’t know that’s what you did at work. I thought you just read the paper.’ ‘It’s harder than it looks. Employees don’t always do what you ask,’” Clanton says, recalling responses from students after a day of running BizTown.
The JA Investor Challenge kicks it up a notch for high school students. They spend a day buying and selling stocks; competing against other schools, or “investors”; and getting a taste of New York Stock Exchange fever.
“It gives students a more hands-on opportunity to compete in something that has an assimilation of what is real,” says Dr. Cathy Burden, superintendent of Union Public Schools, concerning the Investor Challenge in February.
“There was such energy. ... the students were so fired up. They were sitting in their seats at the beginning. But within a few minutes, they were up moving just like at the stock exchange.”
Volunteers from Tulsa’s business community teach all JA programs. They are encouraged to share their current experiences, obstacles and wisdom.
“Students are always excited when you have another person in the classroom,” says Clarence Oliver Jr., who has been involved with JA for three decades as a school administrator and board member. “It brings a different perspective. They are with teachers all day. When someone from the business community comes in, they recognize someone successful. They become energized.”
It takes more than 380,000 JA volunteers every year to teach more than 9 million students worldwide, including nearly 35,000 students in eastern Oklahoma. Clanton says volunteers come from nearly every business imaginable, from banking and construction to restaurants and retail, representing companies such as Williams, Flintco, Wal-Mart and Arby’s.
“It’s like you’re giving something except you always get more in return,” says Michael Oonk, a vice president at American Bank and Trust and the 2007-2008 JA Volunteer of the Year. “Kids are always glad to see you, no matter who you are.”
For 10 years, Oonk has stepped into the classroom, spending one hour a week for five weeks as an instructor in the JA program.
“JA provides all the materials, but they are general enough, you can adjust them to how you want to present it,” he says. “And to make sure they (students) are getting the concepts, each week you review last week’s lesson. The activities are designed to build on each other.”
To get involved, volunteers fill out a form and undergo one hour of training at the JA office. And other than simply making time for the one hour a week, Oonk says he sees no other obstacle to stepping inside a classroom and bringing a real-world experience to students.
“If you feel like I do, you keep coming back because you feel like you are netting a positive for the students,” he says.
Bullard is proof. After graduating from Nathan Hale High School in 2006, he obtained a scholarship through JA to Oral Roberts University, where he is pursuing a degree in communications and business administration.
He plans to return home to the Bahamas and start a consulting company to teach young entrepreneurs what being successful means — physically, spiritually and economically.
“That’s what JA did for me,” Bullard says. “They instilled in me so many things. I want to be able to instill them in so many others.”