Front Row Center Newsletter from the Greater Columbus Arts Counsil

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By Maggie Willis

A ten-year-old girl in a suit coat and skirt brushes past her friends, on a mission as she power-walks to the bank to open a savings account, while a near-by student bemoans that he “bounced a check.” Beneath a bright red City Hall, the mayor plays with his walrus moustache in top hat and tails, greeting the citizens who elected him. One tiny reporter says that he can’t take a break—he has a deadline. Another earnestly interviews her fellow fifth graders, getting the inside scoop on how they’ll be paying off their business loans.

Seem strange? Not at Junior Achievement BizTown (JA BizTown).

Junior Achievement of Central Ohio (JACO) program has been a part of the Columbus community since 1950, hosting educational events for K-12 students designed to give them the confidence and inspiration they need to succeed in a global business economy. One of JACO’s capstone programs is JA BizTown: a four week curriculum that educates fourth to sixth graders in the basic tenets of economics and citizenship in the classroom. In it, the students cover a variety of business skills, including the basics of balancing a checkbook, the importance of their rights and responsibilities as citizens and designing a business plan. The curriculum culminates in the day trip to the model town, JA BizTown, where, according to JA BizTown director Pete Crozier,  the children “run the world for a day,” and it becomes very clear how all the skills they’ve learned are relevant to real life.

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Columbus’ JA BizTown’s home is the former Second Avenue Elementary School building in the Short North, it will open at the end of October for 100 days of a colorful, playful, and educational model town. Each day, students will attend opening ceremonies in the former gym, and then run through the Career Transforminator 3000, a transformation machine complete with flashing lights and beeps and boops, emerging on the other side in their new career.

Their new careers include CEOs, CFOs, marketing directors and salespeople, as determined by their interest and aptitude tests in the classroom modules. Filling the roles of business owners and citizens, students get a taste of the adult world. Each business is given a loan to open its doors, and JA BizTown citizens must spend the rest of the program paying it off by selling their wares. Citizens also elect a mayor; CEOs attend mock conferences in “Hawaii and Fargo” and, of course, everyone cashes their paychecks.

JA BizTown is populated with 16 business and governmental organizations, modeled on real-world counterparts—from Huntington Bank to City Hall, the Blue Jackets Hockey Shop, CD 102.5 and the Columbus Foundation and, of course, the Greater Columbus Arts Council. Each JA BizTown business is constructed from scratch by local volunteers and businesses like the Arts Council.

Partner businesses get creative as they build replicas of their offices that the students can use to experience a day in the life of their city. Some of these business’ transitions from real-world to model town is fairly straight-forward. For example, a Raising Cane’s restaurant is strictly food service, selling mock versions of their delicious chicken meals to hungry citizens and the boutique Thirty-One Gifts is a home-based retail shop.

For an organization like the Arts Council however, distilling the essence of its work is a little more challenging. Jami Goldstein, VP Marketing, Communications & Events at the Arts Council, said that she hopes to instill broad lessons about how the arts, business and community intersect, so that kids understand the way they support and enrich each other.

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In the real world, the Arts Council receives most of its funding from the city directly through the bed tax (a tax on lodging at Columbus hotels and motels) but it won’t be necessary for the JA BizTown student to make trips to the mayor’s office for funding. Instead, in combination with the loan they receive to open their doors, the Art’s Council students will sell merchandise based on the Columbus Arts Festival’s mascot the Art Shark, as well as actual art pieces made by the students at TRANSIT ARTS to fellow JA BizTown businesses. The students will figure out how much they need to charge for each of the items—shark tooth necklaces, Art Shark puzzles, shark fin hats, and shark slinkys—to cover their costs.

For every dollar a citizen spends at the Arts Council store, he or she will get a wooden token to vote for a community arts project they’d like the Arts Council fund. This will demonstrate how the community at large influences, supports, and benefits from the work of arts organizations like the Arts Council. Currently on the voting block are projects previously funded in real life by the Columbus community through the Arts Councils crowd-funding website power2give: a trip for South High Harmony arts students to see a Broadway play in New York; a new sound system for the Actor’s Theatre of Columbus; and the stained-glass window renovation for the Green Lawn Abbey. At the end of JA BizTown, the project earning the most funding will be announced with glowing LED lights in the voting box that turn on with each added wooden coin.

Mike Davis, President of Junior Achievement of Central Ohio, says that the program is well received because students and teachers learn and understand how the lessons in the program “connect to real life.” Mike Hyzdu of UBS Financial Services, says that JACO allows kids to see that there are jobs beyond being a “teacher, a coach, or what [their] parents do for a living.” The program has “opened up [the] eyes” of his own children, demonstrating in a hands-on way how even his [own] work in the financial sector fits into a community.Finally, kids will learn how businesses support the arts and artists in their community directly through patronage. The CEOs of each JA BizTown business will select and purchase one of sixteen art pieces commissioned by the mock Arts Council for their offices. These pieces will be displayed publicly for all to see on easels in the gym during JA BizTown’s closing ceremonies in a very real installation.

The success of JA BizTown is tangible as kids come out of the program with increased understanding of the economy and can-do confidence that they can tackle the challenges of the business world. Ninety-two percent of JACO students felt they could compete in the business world versus only 45 percent of students who haven’t completed the program. A JA BizTown citizen concurs, “JA BizTown was fun for me because I learned how to manage my money. I also learned how important it is to stay in school so I can get a good job in the future.”

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To director Pete Crozier, “the greatest benefit of the program is the confidence-building it can provide.” Volunteer Greg Moran of Nationwide Insurance agrees. “One of the coolest things about coming and spending a day at JA BizTown,” he says, “is to see a fifth grader, who never, ever thought it was possible for them to start a business, see that it’s not that mystical, and they can do it, too. To see that light bulb go on for them, even in the fifth grade, opens up possibilities in their future, when they’re still very young, that I think wouldn’t be open if they didn’t have this kind of experience.”

And so as JA BizTown closes its shops after the final ceremony, volunteers and students alike head home with the satisfaction of a job well done, and its citizens with the confidence that they can handle the ins and outs of running a busines—or at least a better appreciation for the difficult decisions their parents and teachers make everyday. As one, young BizTown citizen put it, “Everyone comes to me for money. We are not made of money. There isn’t enough to go around. I have to decide what is important.”But the dividends of a program like JA BizTown don’t stop there. Pete Crozier has countless stories of adult volunteers who come in the morning unsure of what JA BizTown is, but are “so moved by the experience that they return the next day with a trunk full of supplies for the students. We have had single volunteers provide multiple scholarships to our Summer Camp to children they don’t even know.”  JA Biztown is not only about engaging the students and schools with the program but also engaging the community as a whole through partners like the Arts Council to create a sustainable partnership for the enrichment of everyone in Columbus.

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