Kids get a dose of adult life

In BizTown, students run the city

October 21, 2007|By SUSAN GVOZDAS | SUSAN GVOZDAS,Special to The Sun

The staff meeting had just ended at the radio station as the chief executive officer struggled with a computer program to pay a bill. Frustrated, 11-year-old Rebecca Forrester lost it when a colleague allowed a friend to give a shout-out on the air.

"You have to pay for that!" she yelled to her disc jockey. Rebecca slapped her hand to her head and turned back to her computer screen.

It's tough being boss, even of a pretend Christian rock radio station.

Last week, Arundel Bay Christian Academy in Lothian was the first school to get a daylong dip into the business world at Junior Achievement's new simulated community, called BizTown.

The program is intended to teach elementary school students about financial literacy and how the economy works, from running a business to paying for goods and services. Junior Achievement, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization, has run similar programs nationwide through its chapters for the past 20 years.

Junior Achievement of Central Maryland razed its popular, 6-year-old Exchange City in Owings Mills, replacing it with a 10,000-square-foot town-in-the-round. The businesses form a loose circle of storefronts around a town square.

The building's owner, Merritt Properties, and its vendors donated the $350,000 cost of the overhaul.

BizTown not only looks more modern, it benefits from sponsorships from Bank of America and UPS, which lend it a real-world look and feel. Sponsors pay $75,000 over three years for the right to a storefront. They also gain exposure in a student-produced newspaper sent home to parents at the end of the day.

Junior Achievement of Central Maryland usually has 8,000 students participate annually. The Maryland State Department of Education provided a grant of $48,000 so that an additional 685 students could visit this year, said JoAnn Goldberger, senior development officer for Junior Achievement of Central Maryland.

Students take a six-week course to prepare for a day in BizTown. They apply for jobs, learn how to write checks and prepare scripts for their television and radio programs. Students also elect a mayor.

So when the 80 fourth- through seventh-graders arrived from Arundel Bay Christian Academy, they already had been assigned jobs and knew what to do. Each had to go to the bank to secure loans for their businesses. Then they went to the makeshift real estate office to sign leases for their storefronts. Company executives had to pay for utilities and pay their employees. Workers got time off to spend their paychecks at pretend stores and a restaurant.

Students received guidance along the way from their teachers and Junior Achievement volunteers.

Over at the television station, seventh-grader Alexis Alvarez searched frantically for the list of questions she needed to interview Rebecca, as part of her series on interviewing CEOs. Once she found them, Alexis took over the host role with confidence. The two hugged at the end of the interview, which was broadcast on a flat screen to the people of BizTown.

Alexis, 12, loved her assignment.

"I feel like it's my real job," she said.

Several children were disappointed that they didn't get picked to be mail carriers - their first choice over jobs such as camera operator or bank officer. The latter jobs are harder for children to visualize, said Courtney Dunevant, a JA member and director of media relations for Bonnie Heneson Communications. They see mail carriers every day.

"This actually opens their eyes to other opportunities," she said. "Kids who like sports think, `I can make a career out of this?'"

The experience also allows the children to see the penalties for making mistakes. Hannah Holden, 9, was stunned to find she had overdrawn her checking account by 16 cents. She had forgotten to deposit her paycheck as an advertising executive for the radio station.

Hannah listened to volunteer Lisa Calmus explain that the bank can charge a fee for even the smallest overdraft. Calmus then showed her how to record her deposits and withdrawals in her check register.

Calmus, a former principal of the school, said that many students want to be CEO, but back off when they realize how much work is involved. She said students learn how to multitask and work with children they don't like.

"You don't always get to pick whom you are surrounded by," said Calmus, whose daughter is a sixth-grader at the school.

The students also learned another hard reality when they saw taxes deducted from their paychecks.

Princess Lawrence, a seventh-grader, had 18 cents in taxes deducted from her $9 paycheck. She decided to put $1.50 in a savings account, but she wasn't sure if she wanted to spend the rest of it in the shops in BizTown.

"I'm a saver," Princess said. "I can't really spend."

Rebecca's father, Steve Forrester, is a social studies teacher at her school who volunteered to help out at BizTown's real estate office.

Forrester said his daughter enjoyed the program last year because she likes the idea of being an adult for a while. Once it was over, she told him she was glad to turn the job of bill-paying back over to her parents.

"I think if nothing else, the kids appreciate their parents more," Forrester said.

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