Thursday, February 11, 2016

Best Practice Report: Hands on Learning for Students

By Kathy Young, Principal and COO 

During our strategic planning processes around the country, our team often recommends best practices when there is an opportunity for our client to learn from the experience of other communities and regions. Often, these examples are drawn from comparable communities’ experiences with a program or initiative that has resulted in proven success. Sometimes we recommend that our clients look into an innovative new program that may not have a proven track record yet, but has successfully inspired collaboration and helped strategic efforts gain momentum.

Less often, there are programs operating a national level that deserve a second look (or sometimes it’s the first look). Junior Achievement (JA) is one of these programs. Because the organization has been around for 97 years and has a global reach, most of our community leaders have heard of their many programs. Often, Steering Committee members and stakeholders are involved already. But occasionally, we hear about a need for greater financial literacy education or entrepreneurial programs in a community that hasn’t already established a JA connection, and we encourage our clients to consider learning more.

In the interest of checking in on one of our best practice programs, I recently volunteered at the Discovery Center in downtown Atlanta, one of two such facilities in the region – the other is in Gwinnett County, a client community with a very strong education system, which was awarded the 2010 and 2014 Broad Prize for Urban Education.

JA Discovery Center, Atlanta (sourced from
In about a month, I will also be volunteering for “JA Day” at an elementary school in Smyrna, Georgia to see an in-class experience. I should note that my interest is both professional and personal, as my youngest daughter attends the elementary school in question, and there has been interest in getting a Discovery Center in our county.

I had heard great things about the Discovery Center – and after serving as a “Chief Volunteer Officer” alongside seven enthusiastic 6th graders from The Champion School in Stone Mountain Georgia – I can safely say that my expectations were easily met. The experiential program that JA Georgia has put together is impressive, and seamless integration of corporate partners turns what the students might have assumed would be a fun field trip into a realistic venture that is truly empowering and inspiring. The day trip to the Center (which serves 65,000 students a year) caps off an in-class curriculum-based experience led by teachers in the weeks prior to the visit.

By giving the student teams clear job descriptions and time-based expectations, the program motivates them to work together and helps them attach meaning to otherwise abstract concepts. I was assigned to the Chick-Fil-A team, which was responsible for catering for the 150 person group in attendance (handing out the bagged lunches) and was challenged to sell products throughout the session (the mini cow toy).

I expected my team to be full of excited sales associates, which they were, and my Marketing Director definitely put his gift of gab to good use. However, what most impressed me was how the other students stepped naturally into their roles and took responsibility for the more tedious jobs like paying invoices and logging sales by hand (in addition to the fun job of swiping their JA Biztown bank cards). They set a sales price and then adjusted it quickly when sales were slow, and most importantly came to the decision collaboratively and without my help.

The career education component is another perk of the Discovery Center. In addition to the sales associates and the marketing position, each team had a store manager, a CFO, and a CEO. There was a Mayor for the day, and every team interacted with the bank and received their product from UPS. By the end of the day, many of the students had begun to sense where their skillsets and personalities could fit in a business setting.

There are dozens of locations throughout the U.S. that provide communities with local access to JA programs, and as with all examples that we provide for our clients, it’s important to note that one size doesn’t fit all. If JA isn’t the answer for your community, or isn’t available to you and your partners in education and workforce development, talking about the programs and the value of experiential learning may still spur the kinds of conversations that are needed.