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Traverse City's Junior Achievement program teaching kids business basics

With the cooperation of school systems and local businesses, the Junior Achievement program in the Traverse City area reaches more than 4,000 kids, teaching them about workforce readiness, personal finance, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.
Nicole Wolf would like to start her own business after she's done with college.

If past success is any indicator, the Traverse City Central High School senior will do just fine--she's already been the president of a successful business.

Wolf and other students started Mugged, which sold insulated mugs. The business was started through Junior Achievement, the world's largest organization dedicated to educating students about workforce readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.

Mugged is an example of what's known as Junior Achievement's Company Program--a semester-long program in which students open a business, capitalize it with stock, sell a product and liquidate.

Wolf said the program taught her all the basics of starting a business.

"Each student makes money for commission, and for being at the meetings. We had all the basic departments for a business, and we paid rent to Junior Achievement," Wolf says. "It is an incredible program, and I suggest that any student takes a class associated with it. As president, I kept track of what everybody was doing, and made sure to keep them on task. I signed important papers, and spoke for the class when we needed to talk to the principal of Central. Although it wasn't required, I made the website for the company and I sold over fifty mugs throughout the trimester."

The Traverse City Junior Achievement district covers nine counties--Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Antrim, Kalkaska, Wexford, Missaukee, Manistee and Osceola.

Lianne Somerville, the Traverse City JA district manager, says the organization's programs reach about 4,000 kids in Northwest Michigan. She says more than 170 volunteers will teach 195 programs across the district this year.

"Volunteers are essential to our program, because they teach every class. They add their expertise and experiences to our curriculum to make it come alive in a relevant way for the students," she says.

Volunteers can be business people, civic leaders, parents or adults who want young people to succeed.

The JA programs are taught in classrooms with cooperation from the schools. There are also after-school JA programs.

"Our staff contacts the schools in the spring and again in the fall to enroll the teachers. Teachers love our programs, because they tie in with what they are already teaching," Somerville says.

JA activities correlate with Michigan state standards, so the programs actually help teachers reach their teaching goals.

Jason Gollan is a board member and JA classroom volunteer. He teaches elementary classes as well as a high school business ethics class.

He's been involved with the organization for several years and said it offers crucial experience to students.

"Junior Achievement addresses something that's vital to the success of the American economy. It trains kids to gather the skills they are going to need to make it out in the world. It's really unlike any other program out there," he says.

JA programs start at the kindergarten level and go all the way up to high school. As children get older the concepts and lessons taught become more complex.

Through an escalating series of programs called Ourselves, Our Families, Our Community, Our City, Our Region, Our Nation and others, elementary-aged students learn basic concepts like earning, saving and the role family members and other people play in the local economy.

These concepts are taught through simulations, games, role-playing, presentations and hands-on learning, Somerville says.

When kids reach fifth grade, they can participate in JA BizTown, a program where students become workers and consumers both in the classroom and at a simulated business community.

In middle school, children learn about the history of business in America, personal finance, the global economy and education and career options they may pursue in the future.

"By the time you get to high school you start talking about economics and ethics, entrepreneurship and the most famous program, the Company Program," Gollan says.

In addition to learning skills like teamwork, critical thinking, public speaking, marketing and others, Wolf says the Company Program also taught her how not to run a business.

"During the end of the trimester, people were selling more mugs than we had available. We learned that we needed to keep track of what we sold as soon as we made the sale, to avoid any conflicts with the amount of sales and the amount of inventory left," she says.

Somerville said JA students are more likely to become entrepreneurs.  

"In a recent JA study, 20 percent of respondents indicated that they own their businesses, as opposed to 7 percent of the comparison group and 10 percent of the general population," she says.

JA does not charge a fee to schools for the programs, and students never pay a fee. Somerville says the program asks the school's parent teacher organization to contribute $100 per class to cover some materials.  

"Some can, some cannot," she says. "JA staff and board raise the money to provide our programs--elementary class: $500, middle school: $600 and high school: $700 to $900."

The Junior Achievement program not only has the support of the school system, it also has the backing of the business community. Gollan says many area businesses contribute financially to the program. Other businesses go a step further and adopt a school, providing volunteers and paying for supplies.

Somerville says Fifth Third Bank adopted Blair Elementary School in Traverse City and provide all the volunteers and a $5,000 donation.

Traverse City’s Kiwanis provides all of the volunteers for Traverse Heights Elementary School and paid for one of the classes. Chemical Bank adopted Lake City and provides volunteers for that school and for Franklin Elementary in Cadillac.

The long list of businesses include Northwestern Bank, Huntington Bank, Hagerty Insurance, TBA Credit Union and Citizens Bank.

"We receive grants from the Optimist Club, DTE Energy, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Rotary Charities. And we had a successful Snow Glow fundraiser in January," Somerville says.

Junior Achievement is a 501c3 nonprofit organization. It was founded in 1918 by Horace A. Moses, Theodore Vail and Senator Winthrop M. Crane. JA reaches more than four million students in every state in the country as well as an additional 6.7 million students worldwide.

For more information about Junior Achievement and its programs check out its website.

Christopher Diem is a freelance journalist who grew up in Michigan. He has a journalism degree from Central Michigan University and spent six years writing for the Upper Peninsula's largest daily newspaper. He is an amateur adventurer and explorer and knows the secret location of Marquette County's Big Boy graveyard. He designs newspapers for a living.

All Photos by Brian Confer

Photo Captions:

High School Senior, Nicole Wolf, is the President of "Mugged"

Junior Achievement participant and High School Senior, Nicole Wolf

Pat Rutt is a Junior Achievement instructor

Jason Gollan is a Junior Achievement instructor

Lianne Sommerville is the Traverse City Junior Achievement District Manager

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