Business Education

JA Discovery Center offers middle schoolers real-world lessons in business and finance

The week after inviting the community to see the newly minted-JA Discovery Center of the CSRA on River Watch Parkway, staff and volunteers greeted area sixth graders into BizTown.

There, they implemented classroom lessons on debit and credit cards, basic taxes and commerce. Students also registered to vote and made selections for their own governmental leaders.

“It’s more like a civics class for sixth graders – adulting 101,” said Ashley Whitaker, Director of Development for the CSRA, Junior Achievement of Georgia. The center’s ribbon cutting was Jan. 11.

Students follow an in-class curriculum provided by JA that offers real-world life lessons. Whitaker said her daughter is a sixth grader at John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School and it’s part of her social studies class.

Students visit the Discovery Center for an all-day field trip, which is a culminating exercise.

Volunteers work with students at the JA Discovery Center. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News

Students are divided into small groups for BizTown. They have specific jobs related to some of the sponsoring businesses in the storefronts.

At the SRP Credit Union, students crunched numbers and interest rates to make sure the financial institution made money while doling out $250 business loans.

Business owners have products to sell, marketing to do and if they don’t make their loan payment, they go out of business, Whitaker said.

Along the way, they may need to reevaluate their pricing. Maybe, the bracelets they priced at $2 needed to be sold a little cheaper to entice customers to buy, said Whitaker.

Some students held roles of chief executive officer, chief operating officer or chief marketing officer and they saw a glimpse of what might lie ahead.

“I didn’t think it was this complicated,” said Coleman Lairscy, a Riverside Middle School sixth grader who was the CEO of Publix for a day. “There’s a lot more that goes into running a business than I originally thought.”

Even though he was the company’s head, he saw how important everyone’s role was to the overall success of a business.

But Lairscy and some of his classmates said the experience was a lot of fun.

“I liked learning how actual companies work,” said Luke Stewart. “I loved all the teamwork.”

The Discovery Center has 18 sponsored storefronts. They include retail businesses, institutions of higher learning, non-profits, healthcare and travel industry partners.

Another program that will utilize the Discovery Center is Finance Park for seventh graders, where they learn more real-life personal finance lessons that include budgeting.

Seventh graders receive a profile when they come into the center. Maybe they’re a single parent with two kids and make $40,000 a year or maybe they’re a single professional making $60,000 a year but with a hefty student loan repayment.

Two of the center’s sponsors are Augusta Technical College and Augusta University.

Inside the JA Discovery Center. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News

Whitaker said those organizations are there to show students there are other options. If they want to advance in their careers, they might need extra education. For some, a four-year college is the answer, but for others, a trade may be what they want. For that group, a technical education may work best.

“There’s no right or wrong,” she said.

 About 150 students can use the facility at a time.

Richmond and Columbia County school districts partnered to create the space that is in a former drill bit manufacturing facility in Columbia County. It had been unused and about 30,000 square feet was transformed into the JA Discovery Center.

It will benefit about 15,000 students a year. Not only will students from Richmond and Columbia County use the space, but Whitaker said students from surrounding communities with less than an hour bus ride will also be invited to use it.

Neighboring counties such as Burke, Jefferson and Aiken, will likely take part in programming.

Volunteers are vital for facilitating the program. About 18-20 are needed daily. Employees of several local businesses have spent their time helping the initiative.

Rebecca Sylvester, the brand growth  Business Partner at Piedmont Augusta, said there were two reasons Piedmont has a major presence in the program.

One is as a community partner to provide community support, and the other is to promote work force development, she said.

At the Discovery Center, children’s eyes can be opened to the possibility of other careers in healthcare. While doctors and nurses are needed, a hospital is more than those two groups of professionals, and employees with other skills are needed to make the entire operation run.

 “We need everything from lab techs to non-technical jobs such as people who keep our environment clean,” she said.

By exposing them to options early, they will be more ready to make career-related educational decisions after high school.

 This JA model is an update to the traditional program which was a kit-based initiative offered after school.

 While many JA chapters across the country still use that model of creating a product such as a birdhouse and marketing it, Whitaker said the discovery center model impacts more children.

The Augusta area center is the sixth one to open in Georgia.

Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News and Inspiring: Women of Augusta, has covered Augusta’s news for 35 years. Reach her at Sign up for the newsletter here.

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