This year, Junior Achievement (JA), a non-profit economic education organization, is celebrating its 100th birthday!  It came to Arkansas in 1987 and to Conway shortly thereafter, offering age-appropriate curriculum to K-12 classrooms.

JA was founded in 1919 by Theodore Vail, President of AT&T; Horace Moses, President of Strathmore Paper Company; and Sen. Murray Crane of Massachusetts. Its first program, JA Company Program, was offered to high school students as an after-school program. Over the last 39 years, JA has expanded its programs and broadened its scope to include in-school programs for all ages.

Junior Achievement USA is headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado but has 109 area offices in all 50 states that serve more than 4.8 million students. JA Worldwide has over 100 member countries and has reached over 100 million students since it began in 1919. Using business volunteers, JA’s mission is to inspire and prepare young people to succeed in a global economy.

Junior Achievement of Arkansas was established in 1987 and four years later, as the Conway High School economics teacher, I invited JA into my classroom. I taught JA Economics, an activity-based curriculum, while each week Acxiom and Kimberly Clark volunteers came to my classroom to facilitate the JA Management and Economic Simulation Exercise (MESE) program. 

My first volunteer was Marv Komerovsky, Kimberly Clark’s plant manager. Each week, he led the students through JA MESE, a business strategy simulation in which students made decisions that impacted their market share in a fictitious industry. Today, it is an online strategy simulation called JA Titan.

In JA Company Program, the students organized themselves into a company that wrote a business plan, sold stock, developed a product and then marketed that product. Over the years, the student company, Wampus Cat JA, became known for developing and marketing spirit products such as senior class shirts and Wampus Cat t-shirts and hoodies. The companies produced spirit products until 2012 when the program was eliminated due to curriculum changes. 

For 20 years, Junior Achievement provided my economics students with many memorable experiences in addition to the engaging curriculum.  Students were often invited to the state JA business luncheon where they had the opportunity to meet celebrities like Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboy owner; Stedman Graham, Oprah Winfrey’s longtime partner; and Gale Sayers, famed Chicago Bears football player. 

As the teacher, I also benefitted greatly from the JA experience. In 2001, I was named the Junior Achievement National Economics Teacher of the Year.  That summer, I joined economics teachers from around the world at JA headquarters in Colorado Springs as we learned new strategies for teaching economics and entrepreneurship. 

JA has updated its programs through the years to reflect a changing economy as well as changes in technology. While the 1991 JA programs utilized a 3.5-inch floppy disc, by 2012, the technology had evolved from VHS to DVDs. Many programs today have online learning platforms.

The delivery methods for JA programs have also changed in recent years. While volunteers formerly visited elementary classrooms once a week to deliver age-appropriate economics curriculum, volunteers now come into the schools for JA in a Day, a whole-day of enriching economics activities usually taught to an entire grade level of students.

JA Company Program also received a makeover.  An all-day training at UCA, led by The Conductor, an entrepreneurship and innovation team, kicks off the program for central Arkansas students.  Specialized business volunteers provide expertise and guide the student company teams as they start their businesses.  

Lizzie Wells’ two Entrepreneurship classes at the Conway Area Career Center are then mentored by a team of six Conway business volunteers who visit the classroom throughout the semester. Students use a new interactive online learning platform to plan and operate their business.

Through this hands-on experience, students learn to do break-even analysis, develop a marketing and sales campaign and keep accurate financial records.  At the end, they liquidate the business and produce an annual report which is presented at a pitch competition among the company teams.

Although retired, I am back in the classroom coordinating the business volunteers who are mentoring the Conway JA Company Program. Facilitating these student companies has re-ignited my passion and it is now igniting the passions of a whole new generation of students and volunteers.