For Kim Cherry, executive vice president of corporate communications for First Horizon National Corp., a panel discussion with Kemmons Wilson Jr. and Pitt Hyde drove home the rich history of the city’s entrepreneurial spirit.
As a lifelong Memphian, however, she also is well aware of the history of poverty and bankruptcy here.
It is this disparity, this push and pull, that makes an organization like Junior Achievement of Memphis and the Mid-South so important to her.
“I don’t know that there is an organization more important to a bright future for Memphis,” said Cherry, Junior Achievement’s board chair.
CubeSmart team member and Junior Achievement volunteer Skip Betts teaches JA Company Program to a class at Germantown High School.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
The three pillars of the nonprofit education organization’s mission are work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.
“Our organization is interested in giving the kids the skills necessary to be successful once they finish school,” said Larry Colbert, executive director. “What makes our organization successful on teaching these economic education programs is our delivery system. That’s different than anybody around in how they get the information into the hands of the students.”
This is done through volunteer consultants in school classrooms from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“We are basically a conduit between the business community and the school system,” Colbert said.
JA volunteers teach an hour per day for a five- to 10-week program, depending on the grade. Students learn the basics of economics, how a community works and “why mom and dad have to get up in the morning and go to work,” Colbert said.
At 307 Madison Ave. Downtown, across the trolley tracks from Downtown Elementary School, is JA Biz Town. Since 2002, this replica miniature city with 15 standalone businesses is where fifth and sixth graders have gone to conduct experiential learning.
They’re given two “paychecks” per day to learn about working together, creating and selling products, and making a profit. The daylong simulation comes at the end of a five-and-a-half week curriculum with the goal of making enough money to pay off their “business loan.”
“Most kids think you just open up a business, you don’t have to have a loan, and how all that stuff works; this particular program teaches them that,” Colbert said. “I’m a little biased, but I think this is the best education program in all of Memphis and the Mid-South.”
Junior Achievement was founded in 1919 by three prominent businessmen as an after-school business club in Springfield, Mass., and came to Memphis in 1955. It continued as an after-school program, teaching young adults how to run a business, until 1986 when it “evolved into realizing that kids needed an understanding about some aspects of business … much earlier than waiting until they got to middle and high school,” Colbert said. “Kids start making decisions early on, their formative years around the fifth-grade level when they start deciding what they want to do with the rest of their lives.”
For the 2013-2014 school year, 52 schools are on schedule to complete the JA Biz Town. The program, which has averaged around 7,000 students per year the past couple of years, could accommodate twice that number and up to 100 schools.
“The only reason for JA Biz Town that those numbers are not reached is strictly financial,” Colbert said. “The school system itself just doesn’t have the funds.”
Last year alone, he added, more than 40 schools were turned down that wanted to participate in the program but couldn’t due to lack of funding.
There is no cost for the in-school program, with fundraisers such as the Bowl-A-Thon and 5K races going to defray costs. For JA Biz Town, however, the average cost per student is $30, an amount that is supplemented by Junior Achievement’s operational dollars, the actual cost being $75.
“That shows you how challenging it is to get the funds for more schools to participate,” Colbert said.
Local businesses such as ACH Food Cos. Inc., Buckman Laboratories, and churches such as Idlewild Presbyterian, have adopted schools to help allay costs as well.
In a time when the economy is so fragile, the need for a real-world economics education is even more crucial and Junior Achievement, with its proactive versus reactive lesson plans, is more important than ever, the organization’s leaders noted.
The value is simple. Colbert learned it with Junior Achievement as a high school sophomore in Atlanta, and it’s one that Cherry is eager to evangelize.
“I want people to understand how the choices that they’re making financially impact their lives,” she said, “and that’s what Junior Achievement teaches.”