JA lab to help teach finances to children

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Junior Achievement of Southern Colorado has developed plans to transform part of a closed District 11 elementary school into a hands-on lab of sorts where students can learn about entrepreneurship and how to manage their personal finances.

The project, still under study, would establish JA’s first BizTown, aimed at fifth graders, and Finance Park, for eighth graders, in Colorado. There are more than three-dozen similar JA classrooms across the country.

The nonprofit began to explore the feasibility of its plan earlier this year and a board vote is expected in early 2011. It said response has been so far overwhelmingly in favor of the concept.

Yet to move ahead, JA will need to persuade the business community to open its wallet.

The space it wants to use — 20,000 square feet at the former Adams Elementary School — will be donated by District 11. NAI Highland Commercial estimated the arrangement would save JA $3.2 million in lease payments over 20 years. But JA needs to raise commitments for $2.2 million more to cover the cost of a build-out of the space and operational expenses in the first two years, among other items.

Financial literacy among the nation’s young is a growing problem. Sixty percent of American teenagers can’t properly explain the difference between cash, credit cards and checks, and 62 percent of 12th-grade students failed a financial literacy test.

David Loose, president and CEO of JA of Southern Colorado, said he was confident many of the school superintendents in the region would agree to send their students to JA’s BizTown and Finance Park.

District 11 already has committed to sending all of its fifth- and eighth-grade students through the programs, which will fulfill half of JA’s goal of seeing 8,000 students go through BizTown and Finance Park each year.

In the Pikes Peak region, there are about 10,000 students in fifth grade and another 10,000 in eighth grade. Students would pay $20 to attend.

Several school districts send students to a similar program in Denver known as Young AmeriTowne, established in the late 1980s by cable mogul Bill Daniels.

As with the AmeriTowne program, students taking part in BizTown learn job skills, how to bank, how to vote and more. Finance Park attendees are assigned a job, family and salary. They have to “buy” food, clothing, housing, insurance, transportation and more, while keeping their budget balanced after paying taxes. In both, students spend several weeks in their classrooms going through lessons on the economy, free enterprise, taxes and more.

JA considered launching the Biz Town concept in Colorado Springs about 10 years ago but calculated it would lose money doing so. Under the latest vision, Finance Town and BizTown would be set up in the same building, and it would take one day to transform the set from one to the other.

But it’ll take more than what JA can generate in student fees to make its plan a reality.

JA is looking for 12 to 18 sponsors for BizTown. Each would be exclusive, meaning only one bank or one restaurant or one TV station would be represented. For Finance Town, it hopes to attract as many as 54 sponsors, or about four businesses in each category.

It’s hoping to identify two large benefactors willing to donate $400,000 each, two more ready to commit $200,000 apiece and four able to contribute $100,000 each. The balance of its fundraising goal, it hopes, will be made up through smaller contributions.

JA’s projected start date gives it plenty of time to solicit sponsors. If an affirmative decision is reached by the board, it will then move into fundraising, which will continue through June 2013. Construction would begin at that point, with a move-in date scheduled for the fall of 2014.