JA Finance Park rolls out financial literacy programs for students in central Iowa

Junior Achievement by Shannon Gerard and Ryan Osborn of Central Iowa at the new JA Finance Park space. Photo by Duane Tinkey

A school day spent at Junior Achievement of Central Iowa’s JA Finance Park can be an eye-opening experience for students when it comes to earning and spending money. Through the all-new program that began earlier this month, students learn valuable budgeting and money management skills they might not have realized they would need when they venture into their first full-time job.

The new program — a substantial addition to the popular JA BizTown program that Junior Achievement has offered elementary school students for several years — is much more than a personal finance simulation, said Ryan Osborn, president of JA of Central Iowa.

“What it’s really about is making the connection between the lifestyle you want and the net monthly income you need to support it,” he said. “What kinds of jobs, what kinds of career paths are there, and what kind of earning potential do they have? And then we keep walking to where they are today, so they know what kind of training, education and skills that will make them marketable and eligible for those jobs.

The program will also help school districts meet new state financial literacy program requirements. Beginning with the class of 2020-21, Iowa students are required to take one semester of personal finance literacy as part of their graduation requirement.

Osborn estimates that the JA Finance Park program covers approximately 60% of financial literacy needs. “We’re still tweaking a bit, but there are a few other JA programs you can do that will get you almost 100%,” he said. “What we’ve found with teachers is that they have a certain curriculum that already covers some of that, so our role is to step in and bridge the gap for them by doing a curriculum like JA Finance Park. ”

About 50 eighth graders from Norwalk Middle School recently participated as the first class to take the program. The school day experience was the ribbon that tied together several weeks of financial literacy instruction delivered by their classroom teacher.

“We’ve been working on all these little units since the start of the school year,” said Hilary Lucas, an eighth-grade teacher at Norwalk Middle School. Lucas said she especially liked the shopping simulation at the end of the day that tied it all together. “It was a great ending for them.”

Small groups of students rotated between several learning “pods” in the newly renovated area of ​​Junior Achievement’s Education Center at 6100 Grand Ave. in Des Moines. The space, previously an auditorium, has been completely renovated into an airy room that can accommodate around 70 students at a time. Over time, the new JA Finance Park program is expected to grow to serve between 5,000 and 6,000 students per year.

“We thought if we were going to run Finance Park, it needed its own space,” Osborn said. “We couldn’t share the BizTown space. Approximately 8,000 students pass through BizTown [annually] and that really puts it at full capacity. With the potential appeal that JA Finance Park will have, Junior Achievement’s onsite capacity could rapidly increase to 14,000 students per year.

“We do not plan to fill [JA Finance Park] the first year,” he said. “We can get a few thousand students to come and experience it this first year, and then as awareness grows, we hope to fill it one day, as BizTown has done over the years.”

While some Junior Achievement chapters in other cities have spent $10 million or more on facilities to house JA Finance Park, such a large investment was not feasible for the Des Moines nonprofit. A creative remodeling of outdated auditorium space allowed the organization to create new space for around $800,000, “a number we’re really proud of,” Osborn said.

Coincidentally, Norwalk received JA’s District of the Year award for its involvement in Junior Achievement last year, said Shannon Gerard, senior manager of experiential learning at JA Central Iowa. “Before we built this facility, there was a virtual option for Finance Park, and their eighth-grade teacher [Lucas] did it last year. So it was a natural choice to keep them going and be our first this year in the new space.

Other schools listed include some in the Diocese of Des Moines — Holy Trinity, Sacred Heart and St. Francis, Gerard said. Additionally, Winterset is listed and Woodward-Granger will do the virtual option, she said.

“We’re talking with Des Moines Public Schools to hopefully have a big chunk of their kids come in the spring semester,” said Gerard, who before joining JA taught at Des Moines schools for five years. “So there is a growing awareness, and I hope more districts will come on board as they hear about it.”

The program includes a minimum of 18 hours of instruction, but teachers have plenty of options for doing outreach activities, she said. “So some teachers spend a lot more time on the curriculum, and we love that. But we understand that schools are limited in time and have a lot to do.

Lucas from Norwalk said she was impressed that JA Finance Park featured volunteers from corporate sponsors who came to help with each module, each giving a presentation on the different household budget categories.

“The one that stood out to me the most was the module that talked about paying for groceries and other day-to-day expenses,” Lucas said. “Students were blown away by the amount of money they would have to pay for groceries for a certain family size. The comment I kept hearing was, “I just didn’t know things would cost this much.”

Although JA Finance Park is open to students in grades 7 through 12, the “sweet spot” is around eighth grade, Gerard said. “There is actually an entry-level option which is a more simplistic version of the software and then an advanced version for older students who may already have personal finance skills from different classes they have taken. ”

JA Finance Park provides a great opportunity for students to return to Junior Achievement a few years after completing their BizTown experience, Osborn said. “We’ve always asked ourselves, ‘How can we keep kids coming back for another hands-on learning opportunity?’ The Finance Park is a great choice for this, as it caters to older students and gives them a chance to come back to life.

The new program strategically integrates with a new JA Pathways program in which students can start earning badges and certifications for the amount of JA they attend, Osborn said. “So what we’re most excited about is building that pathway to keep them involved in Junior Achievement that way.

“This program will add a lot of energy to the overall program and really help keep JA front and center with people,” Osborn added. “With the financial literacy bill, this is something that educators are more concerned about, and we really hope they see JA as a partner who can help them in this regard.”

Junior Achievement of Central Iowa President Ryan Osborn answers additional questions about the new program and provides an update on the organization:

It’s partly funded by the schools, and the rest is made up of sponsorships. It costs JA approximately $50 per student to run the program between staff, materials, and other expenses. The maximum the school will pay is about 20% to 30% of that. The amount schools pay is based on the percentage of their students on the free and reduced-price lunch program; schools with a high percentage of low-income students can pay as little as $2 per student, with sponsorship funds providing the difference.

Will Des Moines’ status as an insurance hub secure many potential sponsors?

We hope this will be the case because of course we need sponsors to finance the annual operations. But the other difference with Finance Park is that we rely on more corporate volunteers from these companies. With BizTown, many parents come to volunteer, and we will certainly welcome and hope that many parents will also sign up for Finance Park. It also feels like having the word “finance” in the title might scare off some parents, even though we train them and they don’t need to know anything about financial education. But what we really rely on is a lot of corporate volunteers from banks, from the financial services industry. But really, any company, big, medium or small can come and volunteer here because again, we do all the training.

From a revenue perspective, we’re down about 30% [last year] from where we would normally have been, but we have budgeted for it and we can weather that kind of storm. From a student impact perspective, we’re definitely down. I wouldn’t say half, but pretty close to that. Part of that was because we weren’t really able to host a lot of programs there. But the cool thing about BizTown is that a digital version was created, and Shannon [Gerard of JA Central Iowa] does a great job of informing teachers about this. We still had nearly 4,000 students participating in what we called BizTown Online Adventures. … We ended up with just over 10,000 students in total last year.


Learn more in the October 22 issue of Business Record.