Making the Grade: JA program readies students for financial future

For students in Mitchell Alvarado’s ninth-grade math class, lessons aren’t just about algebraic concepts. They’re also about the price of producing goods, delivering customer service and managing costs.

This particular first-year class at Banneker High in College Park is part of the school-within-a-school concept created by Junior Achievement and a cohort of business partners. Launched at the beginning of the 2015 school year, the JA Magnet Business Academy redesigned the traditional high school curriculum to integrate business concepts such as teamwork, communication and problem-solving into every aspect of study.

Classes tackle case studies presented by partner companies - studies that bring to life how math or physics lessons work in the real world. They also interact with CEO’s, visit corporate offices and, eventually, will take on internships.

“Students have to go beyond lessons and use rational thinking to know what to do with the information they’ve learned,” said Mitchell Alvarado, a former middle-school educator who joined JA-MBA in the fall. “We give them real-life concepts of how math works. For instance, if you make cookies, sell them and make $12, is that really profit? What are the fixed costs? Whether it’s selling baked goods or starting a business, students see how linear algebra is directly related.”

Learning to apply lessons to business situations addresses the current demand for students prepared to enter the working world, said Callie Majors, JA’s director of marketing and development.

“Everyone in the business and education communities - and parents, too - is saying kids are not prepared, and the way the economy changes so quickly, we can’t let all the responsibility fall on the school systems,” she said. “Junior Achievement has the ability to be a partner integrator because we have the trust of the business communities and the schools, and we have the experience of bringing financial literacy into the classroom.”

In 2013, JA opened its downtown discovery center that invites youngsters from area schools to participate in lessons that are followed by projects designed to put those lessons to work. Since its debut, more than 30,000 students have been part of the project. “Because of that success, we knew we wanted to expand the idea to the high school level,” said Majors.

Students like Rambenbu Yarnlay, 15, learned about the Banneker program during presentations made in their middle schools.

“I went online and researched it and decided it would help me plan my future,” she said. “I want to become an entrepreneur, and this is exactly what I need. It’s challenging; every month we do case studies with a specific company and talk about things they could to do improve, at first, I wasn’t getting it. But now I really enjoy it.”

About 140 students were accepted into the program that requires only a 2.7 GPA and an application. Together, they attend the same core classes in math, social studies, financial literacy and more.

“The goal is to get kids to think on their toes,” said Alvarado. “They’re not just saying they understand algebra, but that they can apply it to real situations. We do that through having a program that makes learning more experiential beyond the classroom walls.”

Just since the beginning of the school year, Alvarado has marked major changes in the students’ attitudes and performances.

“When they first came in, I asked about their goals and expectations, and many students had no clear answer to ‘Do you want to graduate?’ ” he said. “Nine months later, I asked the same question, and every single student said they want to graduate, do well on the SATs and go to college so they can provide their children with better opportunities than they’ve had. It’s clear the environment we’ve created is a culture of success.”

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