It’s the mayor’s first day in office, and everybody wants a piece of his attention. He’s due to appear on television, and newspaper reporters need interviews. He has speeches to make and local businesses to visit. But Mayor Christopher Davis exudes unflappable self-possession.
“How is your day going?” a young reporter asks him. “I’m finding it very easy,” Davis replies, adjusting his tie. “I know there’s a lot of responsibility with being mayor, but I already have a lot of responsibilities at home. I know I’m good at taking care of people.”
Davis, whose previous day job was being a fifth-grader at Hampden Elementary School, is mayor of BizTown, an empire of plywood storefronts and carpeted roadways that fill a big-box-style warehouse in Owings Mills. Created by Junior Achievement of Central Maryland, BizTown lets kids experience firsthand the realities of how careers, money and business ownership work.
“We run BizTown about 100 times per year or more,” says Junior Achievement senior vice president Kim Fabian. “We’ll see close to 10,000 students this year.”
Before kids arrive, they go through 12 classroom lessons that cover everything from budgeting to finding a job. They arrive knowing what job they’re going to hold, which is good — there are no teachers in BizTown.
Kaylisha Von Hendricks’ Hampden Elementary School class, along with Trinidi Ford’s students from Dorothy Height Elementary School in Reservoir Hill, are running the town today. Von Hendricks has her students interview for their jobs if more than one student is interested in a particular role. In this group, “the CEOs and CFOs had some job competition and had to interview for their positions,” she says.
At the start of the four-and-a-half-hour day, each business takes out a loan from the town bank, Fabian says. “The goal of BizTown is to sell enough products and services through your business to pay off your bank loan.” Kids receive paychecks, which they have to deposit. They have bills to pay and products to purchase.
Already an important lesson is put into practice. Kids want to buy “so much, but their paychecks only allow for so many things,” Ford says.
Nevertheless, the teachers, who observe their students from the town’s television studio, are impressed with their students today. “It looks chaotic,” Von Hendricks says. “But they’re getting it done.”
But life as an adult isn’t always smooth sailing. Accidents happen, and when they do, it’s best to have insurance coverage.
“We have kids get involved in ‘accidents,’” says Fabian. A teacher selects a name at random and reads it in a special report on the news. “Kids have the option of purchasing insurance at the beginning of the day. If they don’t, they have to pay much more out of their paycheck. If they have it, then they’re OK,” she says.
Today, as the students gather around the television to hear the special announcement, Von Hendricks announces that one of her students, newspaper reporter Rowan Jameson, “has poison ivy.” Fortunately for Jameson, she has health insurance.
Von Hendricks loves BizTown’s inclusiveness. “I think the most beautiful thing about this is that all my students, from all levels — my advanced students, my students who receive special education services — they’re all able to participate,” she says.
In fact, Junior Achievement has adapted the program to specifically accommodate schools that serve kids with special needs. “If we’re doing this with a special-needs population,” says Fabian, “it would usually be a smaller number of students.”
John Weitzel, a teacher at a small school for kids with disabilities, The Arrow Center for Education-Tangram in Towson, wanted his students with autism to practice daily life skills, such as crossing the street, shopping and interacting with people in the community. Coincidentally, he stumbled
“I called them and told them what I was looking for, and without missing a beat, they said that they had never done anything with our population but would love to try,” Weitzel says. “I went to visit and was blown away with all the shops and different tasks. After that first visit, I understood just how much potential there was for our students to benefit from BizTown.”
Over three days in July, Weitzel and his colleagues at Tangram brought 20 students, ages 6 to 21, to BizTown to run the government, the bank, the television station, the restaurant and more.
“Our students had the opportunity to practice shopping, walking around a town and interacting with all kinds of different citizens and employees, and they were able to run businesses that were unique and fun,” Weitzel says. “BizTown created a safe setting for our students to explore these social roles that are expected of everyone, and it is something our population very rarely has a chance to actually experience.”
Fabian says Junior Achievement worked with the school to modify the curriculum so it would be relevant to its students. School staff also visited in advance with
the kids to orient them to the environment.
“This was a first for both our school and for BizTown,” Weitzel says, “and we did our best to modify materials, create activities and prepare our students so that the trip would be a success.”
The modifications worked. “I sometimes still can’t believe how much of a success our experience at BizTown was,” Weitzel adds. “And it was so amazing because we had no idea what to expect. We didn’t know if there had been enough prep on our part or if the students would even like it. But it was perfect.”
The program may be so adaptable to all students because, even if objectives are adapted, the goal is to give students an introduction to independent living. And independence, Weitzel says, is “the biggest predictor for success as an adult.”
Junior Ach, that’s not what the adult leaders characterize as success. “We never get a town that goes bankrupt,” Fabian says. “For some businesses it’s easier to pay off their loan than others, so we focus on the kids doing their jobs well and being good citizens and employees.”
Adulting isn’t for sissies, kids learn. “At the end of the day,” Fabian says, “we hear the kids say, ‘Now I know why my parents are tired.’”