Hidden inside a repurposed warehouse in downtown York, BizTown feels like a miniaturized shopping mall.
There are storefronts with a grassy town square, complete with street signs, traffic signals, benches and a mural. Inside each storefront, inspirational posters and job title placards lend to the authenticity.
Junior Achievement’s BizTown experience combines in-class learning on work readiness, financial literacy and entrepreneurship with a field trip to a simulated town where students test-drive a real workday.
“It’s amazing at meeting goals for the kids,” said Tammy DeSanto, a fifth-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary School in Camp Hill. “It teaches real-life skills in how the economy works, how commerce works.”
Junior Achievement of South Central PA serves over 100,000 K-12 students in 14 counties. The organization provides all materials and programs for BizTown, and area companies sponsor many of the exhibits.
Inside of BizTown, a loud hum of student “citizens” bustle about making work-type sounds: clicking pens against clipboards, waiting on customers, building saleable goods with their hands, attending meetings, and even waiting in line at the bank.
These “adulting” activities sound mostly joyless to me, too. But if you think back to the years when you had just reached double-digit ages, playing “pretend restaurant” was fun, and writing checks made you feel excited and grown up.
BizTown isn’t just a one-day elementary school field trip.
Allison Kierce, Junior Achievement of South Central PA’s chief operating officer, described the 20-year-old program as the capstone exercise of a longer running series of lessons.
“So much prep goes into this one day,” she said. “Kids prepare for this field trip starting in kindergarten.”
Junior Achievement’s volunteers visit participating K-5 schools at different intervals to teach 16 classroom lessons over the years, with all lessons building on each other.
Part of the BizTown preparation for fifth-graders is reviewing classified ads, drafting resumes and then actually interviewing for jobs. The mayor and district attorney jobs are elected positions.
“BizTown is a rite of passage for elementary students,” Kierce said. “Kids take this seriously.”
Connect the Dots
In their BizTown welcome packets, “citizens” receive on-the-job training instructions, lanyards, debit cards and detailed information about payroll, business loans and rental agreements. Depending on the jobs they land, they may receive iPads to make financial transactions or uniforms and PPE.
Some workers have kid-relatable jobs with noticeable results. Then there are the transactional service or government jobs with less tangible outcomes. Complex industries scale their missions for the elementary-level students.
For example, the chemists at “Lab Works” produce and sell hand sanitizer. The robotics lab, “Biz-botics,” makes pressed souvenir pennies, using a robot to create them. The workers at the “Wellness Center” produce stress balls with balloons and sand. Construction workers build a bench in the town square.
Citizens make decisions on how to spend their wages on their lunch breaks. They can purchase trinkets, graphics or a limited edition T-shirt freshly pressed in the T-shirt shop. Snacks and beverages are for sale at the farm-to-table garden café. For the right price, the local radio station plays requests or lets citizens guest DJ.
Other media jobs are plentiful in BizTown, with a newspaper and TV station. Citizens can even work at “Game Town” designing video games.
Some jobs cross over to different storefronts, like account managers selling ads, the photographer snapping pictures throughout BizTown to supply media outlets (and the commemorative slideshow), or anyone needing more envelopes and rubber bands from the distribution and delivery center, which is a wholesale business-to-business storefront.
Government City Hall is tucked away in a remote corner of BizTown, working seamlessly in the background. Citizens vote on important issues, like quality awards and which charity to collectively donate their nonprofit jar collections. Citizens attend the mayor’s inauguration and town meetings, where some try out their public speaking skills.
The adult volunteers of BizTown are ever-present in helping citizens with those problems that leave many flapping out in the real world: a printer paper jam, handling unsold merchandise or broken tools.
Then there are those harder grownup problems—feelings about team experiences and emotional moments when they realized they didn’t have enough money to buy everything they wanted.
With BizTown’s intricate inner workings, the immersion of being a BizTown citizen helps students connect the dots between what they learn in school and the world that awaits them once they graduate.
The fifth-graders at Eisenhower Elementary School in Camp Hill, in teacher Karen Anthony’s class, worked together to wordsmith a quote for this story.
“We thought Junior Achievement’s BizTown was an 11 out of 10 experience!” they wrote. “Even though we knew it was only a simulation, it was awesome working together in our businesses and feeling as if we had actual jobs. We wish we could do it all over again.”
Anthony loved BizTown so much that she “can see past retirement and still being part of this program.”
“It teaches kids how to be producers and consumers, the whole economic ecosystem,” she said.
Eileen Denlinger, a fifth-grade teacher at the same school, said that her class thought that BizTown “was one of the best days ever.”
“It was just like a real town, and we loved feeling like a grown-up working an actual job,” she said.
One of Denlinger’s students said, “Wow! I never knew how many bills adults had to pay!”
And that was perhaps the most important lesson of the day.
For more information on Junior Achievement of South Central PA and BizTown, visit www.jascpa.org.
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