OWATONNA — Did you know how to balance a checkbook in sixth grade?

Did you even have a checkbook?

For the first time, students at Willow Creek Intermediate are participating in a real-world, hands-on, kid-sized city to experience how to be a successful citizen in a global economy.

Willow Creekers in the Maple and Oak houses will take their first-ever BizTown field trips on April 21 and 23 to the Junior Achievement headquarters in Maplewood where they will run BizTown for the day by holding jobs and earning paychecks.

Junior Achievement programs like JA BizTown are taught in about 700 schools throughout the Upper Midwest and the program aligns with academic standards.

Last year, more than 153,000 students experienced JA programming that aims to provide students with financial literacy and life skills like BizTown.

“Once they get up there they’re getting paid and working together in teams to produce an outcome,” said Laura Heyne, JA district Manager in Owatonna. “It’s as real as you can get without being real.”

The types of businesses are what people would typically see in cities like Owatonna: a bank, wellness center, café and radio station where students work in a real sound booth and can pay to request songs throughout the day.

Students are given a checkbook and debit card when they arrive to BizTown that they can use to buy real products made by students and other goods like popcorn and juice.

“It’s pretty realistic in term of money in and out,” Heyne said.

New this year is a Philanthropy Center where students can work and businesses can donate to one of three non-profits

“What does a non-profit mean? What does a philanthropist do?” asked Maple House teacher Amy Stringfield who walked around her classroom with a stack of JA checkbooks.

On Tuesday, students were learning about organizations like the Red Cross and having their businesses sign pledges to donate to a BizTown non-profit like Good Karma Dog Rescue, Cheerful Givers and Feed My Starving Children.

Nearby, a similar lesson was underway in Theresa Wagoner’s classroom where students were told its not just “about working and getting a paycheck” but being a good citizen and “demonstrating positive leadership” by supporting non-profits.

Students were also switching gears to plan newspaper and radio advertisements for their businesses.

Maple House teacher Jennifer Hansen only had to say the words, “like a good neighbor—“ before students chimed in with “State Farm is there!” to get an idea of how they should create their ads.

At the newspaper business, eight students circled around the table full of notebooks to brainstorm slogans.

“We are the BizTown Press! We’re the best, better than the rest!” said Jack Titchenal, playing the role of chief executive officer of the paper.

“How about ‘better than the best?’” said Grace Linders, chief financial officer. “I came up with that all by myself!”

During the past several weeks, students have budgeted for employee and executive salaries, operating costs and drafted promissory notes. They filled out a 90-page “citizen guide” that has various activities and assignments for students to learn more about how to work in BizTown while on their field trip.

Of course, BizTown has local government that is student-run, too.

Meet BizTown mayor from Maple House, Faith Hanson.

“It’s cool how it’s a smaller world where we get to experience how hard our parents work,” said 11-year-old Hanson who is in the process of writing her speech for when they visit BizTown next week.

Hanson said she had to make a campaign video for elections where she told her fellow classmates/BizTown citizens that she would “be a good mayor and meet your expectations,” like “being on time, organized, social and always staying on task.”

Sound like a politician in the making?

Hanson said she would “maybe” consider being a mayor when she grows up, but “it’s kind of tough.” Still, she said her friends told her she’s doing a good job and she’s learned a lot about taxes and managing budgets.

The students will go to BizTown next week with their teachers and about 30 community volunteers to help the students run their businesses.

Reach reporter Kim Hyatt at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPKimHyatt

Covering schools, arts and entertainment for the Owatonna People's Press. From the Northland, University of Minnesota, Duluth journalism and photography graduate.

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