Junior Achievement guides students to economic success

St. Mary Immaculate Conception School students, from left, Sam Brimeyer, Morgan Tujetsch, and Elayna Simon navigate the risks and rewards of the various insurance options as part of the Junior Achievement program. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

In a classroom at St. Mary Immaculate Conception (SMIC) in Guttenberg, seventh and eighth grade students are gathered into small groups. The room is abuzz with conversation; students alternately cheer and groan. Classroom volunteer Diane Bieber races from group to group, passing out cards that represent various cash values, and students cross items off a shopping list as they are able to make purchases. At the end of the activity, the team with the most purchases and the most remaining money wins the game.

This is Junior Achievement, a volunteer-delivered, K-12 program that fosters work-readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy skills, harnessing experiential learning to inspire students to dream big and to equip them with the skills to make their dreams reality.  

SMIC principal Steven Cornelius became familiar with the program during his 36-year career as a principal in Dubuque. “Junior Achievement (JA) is so beneficial to our kids. All of my Dubuque schools participated,” he said. Cornelius connected with Bieber, who retired to Guttenberg in 2012. “I mentioned JA and she just sparked. This was something she really wanted to do.”

“I volunteered with Junior Achievement while working for the U.S. Small Business Administration in Cedar Rapids.  After retiring to Guttenberg in 2012, I discovered that JA wasn’t available in the area so I contacted Father Bries and Mr. Cornelius, the Principal at St. Mary's, about starting the program here,” Bieber said.

A JA program schedule was set up in the fall of 2013 for both SMIC And LaSalle Catholic School in Luxemberg and Holy Cross. Bieber is one of three volunteers who teach students in elementary and junior high about the value of businesses in their community, how cities are organized into zones for business and residential use, what it takes to successfully start and run a business, how to do a spread sheet, how businesses are reliant upon the success of other businesses in order to survive – and much more. 

Keith Govier, a former Sheriff of Grant County in Wisconsin, now resides in Guttenberg with his wife, Georgia. Govier volunteer teaches several JA classes at SMIC.  “I think it’s a joy,” he told The Press. “The kids see their parents go to work and go shopping, but they don’t know how the money flow works.” Tina Kass, mother of preschool and kindergarten students at LaSalle in Luxemburg, volunteers to teach in Holy Cross.  

Junior Achievement classes meet for five to seven sessions of up to 45 minutes each. In elementary, JA classes focus on the basics of business and personal finance. Middle school students begin to evaluate the difficult decisions students will have to make in their professional and educational lives. In high school, the focus turns to money management and career options. 

Govier is currently working with elementary students that age to map a fictional city. “The nice thing about it is that it’s not just somebody talking – it’s hands-on activities,” said Govier. Junior Achievement volunteers are trained to use a simple kit provided for each course, which outlines an introduction to a new concept and an activity to reinforce that concept.

Each kit is complete for the five or six 45-minute sessions required for each specific course.  It comes with two volunteer/teacher guides and all the materials needed including workbooks, games and informational flyers.  Each class reinforces concepts and vocabulary learned in previous classes so there is a consistency throughout the JA program, kindergarten through high school.  The classroom teacher stays with the class at all times for support.

Brian O’Donnell assists during Bieber’s seventh and eighth grade JA course. “I like the class, because I think it’s really practical – they’re learning skills for outside the classroom,” he said. “It’s fun. There are plenty of games.” 

“I am currently teaching junior high how to do a monthly budget, prudently use credit and debit cards, and the value of saving money,” said Bieber. “Besides learning how to make good financial decisions, they are also discovering what skills, talents, and values they possess in order to make good career choices in the future.”  

Junior Achievement is a nonprofit organization that does not receive federal funding or United Way dollars. “Everything we do is done with the support of the communities,” said Kyle Wehr, Development Director of Junior Achievement of the Heartland. Wehr and Cassandra Druhl, Education Coordinator, are calling for volunteers and investors to continue the program’s growth. 

“It’s very easy for anyone of any level to get started,” said Druhl. She leads a one-hour training course and provides volunteer support throughout the experience. To volunteer to teach a JA course, contact Druhl at 309-277-3916, or by email at cassandra.druhl@jja.org. To give a tax-deductible donation to Junior Achievement of the Heartland, contact Wehr at 309-277-3917 or by email at kyle.wehr@ja.org

Junior Achievement of the Heartland works with more than 53,000 students in 24 counties in the tri-state area. There are 3,500 volunteers on board in the 260 participating schools and youth organizations. “It’s an investment in the kids’ future, and the region’s future,” said Wehr. “Being responsible for your own finance puts less burden on community services.” 

“My concern is that we keep this program going,” said Principal Cornelius. He sees great value in community volunteers interacting with students. “JA not only gives kids preparation for real life experiences, it also meets some of our standards that we’re asked to meet in Iowa Core. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

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