Junior Achievement’s BizTown: Combining In-Class and Hands-On Learning to Bring Civics to Life

For decades, civics instruction focused on memorizing information such as the mechanics of the United States’ government, the Constitution, the Supreme Court and so forth. As crucial as it is to know these facts, much of this information was gleaned primarily through textbooks and the occasional crude cartoon (i.e. Schoolhouse Rock’s “How a Bill Becomes a Law”), mediums that challenge to hold the most dedicated student’s attention, and arguably, have failed to properly educate Americans about civics.

In fact, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, only a quarter of Americans can name our three branches of government, and the Institute for Citizens & Scholars says merely one in three Americans could pass the U.S. citizenship test. Even when the students do retain this information, it may be difficult for them to connect the dots between what they learn in school and the real world – and why this very important topic actually matters.

So how can civics come alive for students?

Junior Achievement USA (JA USA), a nonprofit that works to prepare young people for success, has an answer: JA BizTown, a model that blends teacher-led sessions with experiential leaning. Through JA BizTown, students in grades 4 through 6 learn about the roles of business, government and citizenship by experiencing how civics impacts their daily life, from influencing economic decisions by understanding the flow of an economy inside a city to utilizing civil discourse to resolve a community dispute in a simulated town. The “town” consists of a variety of businesses, a municipal building, a radio station and banks.

To prepare students for the JA BizTown experience, children participate in a series of classroom lessons where they learn about financial literacy, community and economy, work readiness and business management, all through a civics lens. Each student selects a career, creates a business plan and a marketing campaign and elects a mayor. The students then take their newly acquired skills to JA BizTown and get hands-on experience as employees and consumers, paying rent, buying insurance, depositing paychecks and more.

For students unable to visit one of JA BizTowns’ 32 in-person locations, the organization is offering online civics-based and role-based adventures students can explore, which will allow many additional markets to implement BizTown and its curriculum.

“JA BizTown touched upon civics previously with the election of a student as mayor, but there was an untapped opportunity to really show students the role civic engagement plays in our daily lives,” said Jack E. Kosakowski, president and CEO of Junior Achievement USA. “With the support of The Marcus Foundation, we were able to infuse our learning experiences on work and career readiness and entrepreneurship with lessons in responsible citizenship.”

The Marcus Foundation is a longtime supporter of Junior Achievement of Georgia and, more recently, of JA USA, which also was the recipient of a $38.8 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott earlier this year. The Marcus Foundation’s support is not only financial – the foundation also encourages JA USA to think of new and innovative ways to increase the civics knowledge and experience for those who participate in BizTown programming.

The foundation’s commitment to this endeavor stems from founder Bernie Marcus’s belief in the American Dream – and his mother’s faith that, through education, anything was possible in this country.

“She believed in America. She loved America. … And it was the proudest moment of her life to become a citizen of the United States,” he has said. “She taught me to love this country and to take advantage of all the benefits that this country offered me. For these reasons, we need to support educating our youth about civics and citizenship.”

As a result of this partnership, JA USA has enhanced its curriculum to include additional civics concepts that emphasize the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and feature redesigned and updated visuals to students and educators. The content is nonpartisan but with a clear pro-market point of view that incorporates lesson objectives, concepts (like free enterprise) and terms that reflect how civics underpins the daily lives of everyone in a community.

“The Marcus Foundation helped us understand how important civics is to entrepreneurship,” said John Hancock, president and CEO of JA of Georgia.

To measure the success of its Biz Town curriculum and experiences, JA USA is performing extensive and constant data gathering to ensure this program is driving home the value of civic engagement. The Roundtable believes this is an incredible opportunity for students to better understand their rights and responsibilities as good citizens – and how everyday citizens can make positive changes in their communities.

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