This week Forsyth County Schools cut the ribbon on the new Junior Achievement Discovery Center, an elaborate 25,000-square-foot facility on the Alliance Academy for Innovation campus in Cumming that’s designed to take students from all over northeast Georgia and make them financially literate members of society.
On Thursday, hearing from community leaders like Forsyth County Superintendent Jeff Bearden and UNG President Bonita Jacobs, people got their first chance to wander through the space, which has been in the works for several years.
"This has been years in the making, and the synergy it took to bring this facility together in north Georgia has been second to none,” Bearden said after the event. “The business partnership that we have ... everybody is here at the table creating a great experience for middle school students and will serve this community for the next 50 years."
Made possible by a $3.5 million endowment from philanthropists Mike and Lynn Cottrell, the center is a community in miniature with 18 different businesses including grocery stores, banks, government buildings, all surrounding a center area vividly painted like Lake Lanier.
Each building is a scale model of recognizable local and national names, like Zaxby's, RaceTrac, Georgia United Credit Union, Delta and Northside Hospital. At each, students will come for a day to hold a job and learn different aspects of financial responsibility in an educational setting.
Bearden said that in his 30-plus years in the field of education, the No. 1 criticism he consistently hears from parents, post-secondary educators and community members is how often students graduate high school without basic financial literacy skills, like budgeting, saving and spending habits.
He said that at the center, students will learn those financial skills early and hopefully use them for the rest of their lives.
“We are going to develop those skills with students as middle school students, so they are prepared to graduate high school, move on to post-secondary or move into their careers understanding the importance of being a financially literate citizen," Bearden said.
According to Lee Highsmith, the executive director for the Junior Achievement North Georgia District, 15,000 and 17,000 students from Forsyth County and beyond will come to the center to learn and play over the next year.
"They will learn all about financial literacy, entrepreneurship, they'll learn about the businesses, they'll learn about team work, they will learn the soft skills that employers are looking for in their future workforce,” Highsmith said. “So this is an awesome opportunity for young people.”
Highsmith said Junior Achievement starts teaching kids financial literacy skills starting at the kindergarten level with basic skills like the difference between a need and a want, and progressing up to eighth-graders that learn about how they can be financially healthy and independent with credit and budgeting.
Once they enter sixth-grade, Highsmith said students will be able to come to the center with their classmates to act out a game of life on a grand scale. At the center they will apply for jobs, get paid a paycheck and will have to take care of the everyday bills and taxes that are common in the real world.
"They are either the CEO, CFO, marketing director, they might be a bank teller ... and their goal when they get here for those four and a half hours is to make a profit," Highsmith said. "What you see when you come and watch is every kid is really engaged, they are busy, and they want to make a profit.”
Highsmith said they targeted middle schoolers because that is where they typically see students "checking out" on their education and disengaging. They believe that by catching students at the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade levels they can inspire students to do what interests them and set each down the path to success.
"When they are successful, we are successful and our whole community reaps the benefits," Highsmith said.
Emily Durand, a student at North Forsyth Middle School, spoke to that gathered crowd about when she and her classmates were given the opportunity to visit the Discovery Center in Gwinnett County at the end of last year.
Durand said that even though they had been practicing in class beforehand, there was still a bit of anticipation and mystery about what would unfold when they got to the center.
"It was really cool, because you got there and you didn't really know what was happening,” Durand said. “They gave you enough instruction where you knew what you were doing, but you were like, 'Oh my gosh, what if I don't do my job right.'”
With the help of volunteers at the center, Durand said that she and her classmates quickly were able to shake off that initial nervousness and get down to business.
"It was fun because you got to do things that your parents get to do," Durand said.
Highsmith said they are always looking for more volunteers to help students at the center, and that practically anyone can do it.
"If you have ever had a job or written a check or paid a bill, you have the skills to come and give these kids some advice," Highsmith said. "The kids are playing a huge game of LIFE and you have the opportunity as a volunteer to share with them some of your experiences."