Community volunteers are making economics and entrepreneurship accessible to the younger generation at Eagle View Elementary School.
A local branch of Junior Achievement, a global nonprofit organization for youth outreach, has embedded in Eagle View classrooms for more than a decade, and hopes to continue to spread among more schools in the area.
"We provide volunteer-delivered curriculum for kids in grades K-12, and it's all focused on entrepreneurship, financial literacy and workforce readiness," said Junior Achievement District Manager Amy Gray.
Junior Achievement is entirely nonprofit, and schools that use its services don't pay a penny. The project is funded through grants and donations, both corporate and individual. Volunteers from the community are paired with teachers interested in bringing the program to their students. Junior Achievement provides all materials for five age-appropriate lessons on economics, and the volunteers lead classes in activities that teach those lessons.
"Kids are learning the basics of what drives our economy from the time they are in kindergarten," said Gray. "And it's all really age appropriate, and it's very palatable for that age group. We're talking to them about real world concepts, about adult concepts, but in a way that makes sense for kids."
Gray explained that people often worry about whether young children can grasp principles of economics, but that worry is not needed. The lessons are designed to meet kids where they are and encourage basic strategic thinking.
Kindergartners and first graders focus on the self and basic individual finances. They learn the value of earning money through doing jobs in order to buy something they want. Second and third graders branch out to community and city economics, using the power of teamwork to increase production of goods and raise more funds. By fourth and fifth grades, students are introduced to the concept of a global economy as well as exploring the idea of entrepreneurship.
"Students just aren't getting this kind of education in classrooms," said Gray. "We're empowering students to own their economic success."
Rachal Wolthuizen, a Bremer Bank employee in Brainerd, has volunteered with Junior Achievement at Eagle View for nearly a decade. Out of all the lessons she led, her "far-and-away" favorite is a second grade activity teaching about production. Students have to create as many paper doughnuts as possible using stickers for each element of the pastry.
First, they have to do each step on their own, representing individual unit production. Afterward, they form an assembly line and discover that they are able to make many more doughnuts in the same amount of time if each person is responsible for just one part of the doughnut.
"Watching them see how the teamwork and methodology associated with that works is such a fun, eye-opening experience for them," said Wolthuizen. "I love the hands-on practicality of it."
Other Junior Achievement lessons include creating a budget with the scenario of opening a restaurant, learning why planning and zoning is an important part of city management, and creatively managing resources through simulated global trade, where students represent different countries that hold certain valuable items.
Volunteers teach these lessons over the course of five sessions. Some choose to spend an hour or two every day for one week while others come in weekly over the course of a month. They work with teachers to find a method that suits their needs best.
"The volunteer piece is beneficial because, well, it's kind of twofold," said Gray. "So one, we get the community members to come into the schools, and then they get a sense of what the schools are like, they get integrated into the school system, and also they're bringing a different perspective than what the teachers can provide. And it helps connect students with the community as well."
Sean Bengtson, a third grade teacher at Eagle View, has brought Wolthuizen into his class as a Junior Achievement volunteer for eight years.
"It is always fun to get people from the community," he said. "They open it up to other perspectives than they (the students) might get from me. I'm thankful for our volunteers."
Wolthuizen agreed that her firsthand experience with economics and the "real world" is a welcome addition to basic academic curriculum.
"I think that any time someone comes in from the community to volunteer their time and spend time with the students and bring their real-life experience into the classrooms, they respond really well," she said. "They fire rapid-fire questions at you about your job. 'Who are you? What do you do? Do you know my mom?' I feel like I almost get more out of it than they do, sometimes, selfishly. But I know that they're learning from it as well. It's just a warm fuzzy knowing that you can give back."
Gray is in discussion with both Pequot Lakes Middle School and Pequot Lakes High School to bring Junior Achievement to students beyond elementary levels. She said upper-level lessons help prepare kids for high school, college and/or the workforce beyond.
"You don't have to start your own business to apply entrepreneurial thinking to whatever business you're in, whatever position you're in," she said. "You could be working on an assembly line and you could still use entrepreneurial ideas. Maybe you have some creative ideas to be more efficient that you could bring to your boss. Maybe it's being a team player, or just being confident in yourself."
Gray said Junior Achievement can help students meet community members in all sorts of professional fields and expand their idea of what being financially successful means.
"There are so many opportunities in the trades and skilled workforce," she said. "We're still pushing kids to college, four-year colleges, most of them, and we're not asking, 'What do you really want to do?' You want kids to not just think about 'where do I want to go to school,' but 'what do I want to do and what's the path I need to take there?'"
Gray is hopeful that she could implement the first few volunteers next year if the schools are on board. Outside of Pequot Lakes, the program is regionally active in Brainerd, Staples, Motley, Crosby-Ironton and Pillager.
Whether young kids are just learning the concept of needs versus wants when it comes to saving money or teenagers are preparing to make serious financial decisions regarding their educational and professional future, Junior Achievement volunteers are ready to help them along.
"This is a great opportunity to supplement and enrich," said Wolthuizen.
Anyone curious to learn more information or interested in volunteering with Junior Achievement in area classrooms can contact Gray at email@example.com.