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Michael Schneider-Christians stands before about two-dozen teenagers at Island Park High School in Fort Myers, waving his water bill. He tells students in the Junior Achievement program how much water his household uses and what it normally costs. Then he pulls out his electric bill and does the same thing, going over ways he thinks he and his wife could reduce it.

None of this is specifically part of the JA curriculum, but it adds an important real-life element to the program.

“Volunteers share their stories and end up becoming mentors,” says Junior Achievement of Southwest Florida’s CEO and president, Angela Fisher. The local affiliate covers Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties and has, in business terms, made some new partnerships and significantly expanded its range in the past few years.

If you ask most people what they know about Junior Achievement, if they know anything at all, they will say something like, “Aren’t they those people who get high school kids to form companies?”

That’s true, but it’s way more than that. Or can be, when adults in the community and the schools get behind the national nonprofit’s efforts to ensure work readiness, financial literacy and entrepreneurship, which are JA’s three main goals.

Programs begin as early as kindergarten. The main emphasis is on Title 1 schools, or those with a high percentage of students from low-income families, says Fisher. JA is funded by individual and corporate donations, plus fundraisers and some grants. The material cost per student is about $50 for a five- to seven-week program. Volunteers who teach and mentor are not paid. With a few exceptions, such as a summer business camp, JA programs are offered to students without charge.

Because of the interest of Collier County Schools Superintendent Kamela Patton, attorney Christina Harris Schwinn, some retired professionals from Estero and the FGCU Institute for Entrepreneurship and growing interest from the Lee County School Board, Junior Achievement is poised to take off in a very big way in this area. It has been present, but it’s about to have a much higher profile.

These people are working separately and together to advocate for JA programs in local schools and to recruit mentors to teach the JA curriculum.

Programs and accompanying materials are ready-made and available from JA, including sessions for the classroom for all grades, a “JA in a Day” program for large groups and a program in which students form real startup companies sell real goods. JA programs also help students to be aware of the wide range of careers that are possible, through the JA curriculum and also through meeting these volunteer professionals from the community.

Like Schneider-Christians, a retired Realtor and insurance agent who has taught the JA curriculum locally for 10 years. “I love the young generation and they are very important,” he says. “I want them to learn how important the handling of money is.”

At Island Park that day, Schneider-Christians shared “Five scary faux pas” of money for their age group and how to avoid them: As much as possible, avoid the student loan trap; don’t make yourself house-poor; don’t carry credit card debt; don’t raid your nest egg; and resist the urge to co-sign loans for friends.

About his own credit card debt, Schneider- Christians laughed and held up two plastic bags of card shards, explaining that he had 18 before he came to his senses and cut them up.

“So what is credit?” Schneider-Christians asks the Island Park students.

“It’s like not your money. It’s money you borrow,” answers Holly Sutphin.

“Right. Credit is like a hammer. It’s not good
or bad, it’s what you do with it,” Schneider-
Christians says. “And who cares about your
credit?” He goes on to answer that, and to talk
about credit scores and reports, pawn shops,
payday and equity loans and what happened in the housing bubble.

Then on posters with superheroes and regular people who have thought bubbles over their heads, students fill in the words for a dialogue between the characters that explains credit.

Interested students apply and are interviewed to earn a spot in the Island Park class, Principal A. J. Naus explains.

Representative students from participating high schools attend the annual Junior Achievement Hall of Fame banquets, by county, each with about 500 members of the community. “It’s a big night for them to meet the different business people. … It’s awesome for the kids, because they are looking to get out into the workforce,” according to Naus.

“Students get involved in the whole process,” says local JA Education Manager Vanessa Santiago. “They do the brochures, seat people and meet the adult honorees.” To be honored in April as Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame Laureates in Lee County for 2018 are Pason Gaddis of Florida Weekly and Gary Griffin of B&I Contractors. Collier County’s laureates will be chosen later in the year and honored in October; 2017 inductees were Edward Staros of The Ritz- Carlton Resorts of Naples and Mark Wilson of London Bay Homes.

The networking that students can do at events like the Hall of Fame banquet are certainly valuable, but their needs go much deeper.

There’s evidence that students in the United States are sorely lacking in financial knowledge when they enter the workforce—or even just grow up and take care of their personal lives—than they generally get without programs like JA.

Local CEO Fisher, who has helmed Florida nonprofits for about 30 years, and JA of Southwest Florida for nearly three, has met plenty of college students with loans who do not know what interest rate they are paying, for example.

Every three years beginning in 2000, the Programme for International Student Assessment has evaluated the reading, math, science and financial knowledge of 15-year-old students from around the world.

About 1,500 American students annually take a computer-based test, and in results from May 2017, 22 percent of them failed to meet the baseline determined by the firm to signify financial literacy.

Worldwide, U.S. students ranked seventh, behind teens in China, who were the most financially literate, followed by Belgium, Canada, Russia, the Netherlands and Australia.

Members of this community are trying to change that.

“I was a JA kid,” explains Jim Shields of Estero. As head of the village’s Economic Excellence Outreach committee, the retired businessman from Indianapolis is leading a charge with members of nine Estero communities to recruit 76 volunteers to teach JA programs in Lee County schools.

“A well-educated workforce will help sustain a stronger economy with better career opportunities and improved quality of life for our citizenry in the village of Estero and beyond,” Shields says.

Junior Achievement programs have for years been in Estero schools. But a new emphasis will begin in September 2018 at Pinewoods Elementary, Three Oaks Elementary, Three Oaks Middle School and Estero High School. A pilot program will be called “2-5-8-graduate.” Lessons appropriate for students in grades 2, 5, 8 and high school will be taught by community leaders who volunteer and go through the JA training program.

The “2-5-8” effort with Lee schools is part of a larger initiative of the Estero committee in partnership with Florida Gulf Coast University and its Entrepreneurship Program, other area economic development entities, Lee Health, local government bodies and financial institutions. The purpose is to diversify Southwest Florida’s economic base. Those involved hope to help grow generations of financially savvy young entrepreneurs who stay to diversify and enrich the local community.

Shields’ experience with Junior Achievement began in 1957, when he was
a 15-year-old student at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, and
a good friend suggested the two of them sign up for an after-school Junior Achievement program. “This wasn’t how many of our friends spent their free time after school,” Shields wrote in an opinion piece for the Naples Daily News in April 2015. “But for me, JA became a life-changer.” For years, Shields owned a Freightliner truck dealership in Indiana.

His association with JA didn’t end when he graduated from high school. He returned in 1987 to mentor a group of Indiana ninth graders in financial literacy and work readiness, and he has continued to support JA programs here.

Several years ago, Shields founded a gala and golf tournament in his own community of Grandezza that now serves as the primary funding source for JA of Southwest Florida’s CEO Academy, a week-long business summer camp for high school students in partnership with FGCU.

In Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties in the 2016-17 school year, 10,658 students received JA curriculum instruction in 440 classes, with 228 volunteers in 56 schools. Nationally each year, more than 4.8 million young people are involved in Junior Achievement in 209,651 classrooms and after-school locations in all 50 states.

Junior Achievement was founded in 1919 by Theodore Vail, president of American Telephone & Telegraph; Horace Moses, president of Strathmore
Paper Co.; and Sen. Murray Crane of Massachusetts. It was called JA Company Program, offered for high school students after school. Project Business was added for middle school grades in 1975. Since then, JA has fashioned lessons for kids of all ages, kindergarten through high school. Eleven different complete programs are available for high school students alone, on topics including personal finance, economics, résumés and interviewing, job shadowing and more. Some programs for both high school and middle school students involve pitching business ideas to a compassionate “shark tank” of professionals who judge the presentations. Scholarships are available to some winners.

In the elementary and middle school years, students begin learning about the global economy with materials such as a colorful printed card with a backpack on one side and six sections on the other, representing where its parts may come from: zippers from Japan; cotton padding from Burkina Faso, the designer from New Zealand. They begin thinking like entrepreneurs with prompts such as, “Cellphones and tablets are small devices easily left behind. What could an entrepreneur create to keep this technology close at hand?”

Christina Harris Schwinn, a lawyer and partner at Pavese Law Firm of Southwest Florida, was involved in Junior Achievement some years ago as a high school student in Reno, Nevada.

“That’s when I learned when you don’t show up at a meeting, you get elected president,” she says, laughing.

But that’s not all she learned. Her group, of which she was president, set up a company that successfully launched a new product—a desk thermometer with which the temperature of a room could be determined with a test strip placed in an attractive wooden case.

Schwinn now is chairwoman of the board of Junior Achievement of Southwest Florida. She is a founder of JA Law Day, held for students in participating area high schools every February in partnership with the Lee County Bar Association.

“We start at the [Lee County] clerk’s office, where [Clerk of Court and Comptroller] Linda Doggett talks to them. They take a tour of the jail and go to the Juvenile Justice Center,” Schwinn says. “The students enjoy a break from their regular routines” to learn about the judicial system.

To date, 2,000 elementary and middle school students in Collier County have participated in JA programs in college and career readiness, and entrepreneurship. Another 1,290 are scheduled to do so this school year.

Teachers’ reviews
of the curriculum, the volunteers and the students’ interest are glowing, according to Collier schools’ spokesman Greg Turchetta.

“Junior Achievement prepares students to develop successful financial management habits, empowers them to explore the potential of becoming an aspiring entrepreneur, and provides them with the skills necessary to succeed in a global workforce,” says Collier County Schools Superintendent Kamela Patton. “Equally important, JA establishes positive role models and relationships with volunteers from local companies.”

Schneider-Christians’ students at Island Park put this is simple terms. “I know what to do in the future as in saving and spending,” Valeria Fonseca says.

“I’ve learned why credit is important,” says Brian Emery. “My mom and dad have been teaching me about it for a long time, and I learned more about it here.” GB 

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