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October 2007
The Economics of Life
By Ellison Clary

     A 9-year-old who can discuss business profits and commiserate about the pressures of meeting a payroll—does that sound strange?

     Not to parents of 12,000 Charlotte area fourth graders, those who participated during the 2006-07 school year in the JA BizTown program of Junior Achievement of the Central Carolinas. The mission of Junior Achievement, the national organization, and Junior Achievement of the Central Carolinas (JA), the regional organization, is to teach young people about the free market system and make them financially literate.

     As Junior Achievement celebrates its 50th anniversary in Charlotte this academic year, its veteran president is confident it is accomplishing its goal.

     “We teach kids about business, but we also show them how math and science and reading all have some practical outcome in their lives,” says Phil Volponi, who has been president of Junior Achievement of Central Carolinas since 1986.

     What else does Junior Achievement teach? Volponi ticks off three concepts.

     “One,” he says, “they see the American dream is about finding something you love doing.” That might mean owning a business or growing a bank into a financial powerhouse.

     “Second is the concept of dignity of all work,” Volponi continues. “Everyone needs to be participating in a productive endeavor.

     “Third is the concept that we are participating in a global economic situation, and it’s something that will never stop,” he concludes. “If we start early and often teaching free enterprise to children at age 9, which is fourth and fifth grade, and they carry that forward with other experiences, then we will have done good work.”


Real Life Business Concepts

     For an example, Volponi draws on the experience of his Rotary buddy Carlos Sanchez, regional director of external affairs for AT&T North Carolina. Sanchez’ son Felipe participated in JA BizTown during 2006-2007.

     In the JA BizTown program, elementary students get classroom instruction in free enterprise for several weeks. Then they spend a day in a simulated town at Junior Achievement headquarters, playing roles in various businesses and government entities. They can be bankers or retailers, medical professionals or real estate people—and there are other options, including the town’s mayor.

      Sanchez tracked down Volponi to tell him what a difference the Junior Achievement experience made in his son who now is a fifth grader at Collinswood Elementary in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System.

     “They taught Felipe how a bank account works, deposits and withdrawals, how to keep a balance,” Sanchez says. “They taught him about payroll and deductions in your paycheck. They taught him when you sell something you have to send an invoice and there’s tax to pay. Those are business concepts and they are just wonderful for him to use at his age.”

     For his day in JA’s simulated community of JA BizTown, Felipe Sanchez worked for the newspaper selling advertising. But what he learned didn’t come exclusively from that one day, as Sanchez points out.

     “Different aspects of the program they taught in school,” Sanchez says. “They spent a long time gearing toward that one day where they actually take on different roles.”

     Often, a dialogue opens between kids and parents. “These are conversations about real life issues that their parents are experiencing all the time and now their children are experiencing in a controlled environment,” Volponi explains.

     “I’m excited,” says Sanchez, “that I can talk to my son about real estate and what a mortgage is.”

     The JA concept was the brainchild of a trio of business people in Springfield, Mass., in 1919: Horace Moses, chairman of Strathmore Paper Company; U.S. Sen. Murray Crane of Massachusetts; and Theodore Vail, chairman of the fledgling AT&T. They wanted to create a program for city youngsters that mirrored the 4-H clubs for farm youths.

     Junior Achievement expanded dramatically in the 1940s, championed by JA pioneer Joe Francomano and funded by Charles R. Hook, a steel company chairman who also led the National Association of Manufacturers.

     The Charlotte chapter was the first in the Carolinas when it started in June 1958 with leadership from executives such as William McNeary of McNeary Insurance Consulting, O.J. Miller of Duke Power, Charles Crutchfield of WBTV and Rush Dickson from the forerunner of the Ruddick Corporation. That fall, 219 students met at Myers Park High School to kick off the local program.

     That program has gradually changed from after-school sessions for high school students to become part of the curriculum in the middle grades and, later, to classes for elementary school students.


JA as a Career

     Volponi, 53, is a life-long Junior Achievement executive who started his career directing a JA program in Jackson, Mich., in 1976. He joined the Junior Achievement administration in his native Pittsburgh in 1980 and by 1986 was executive vice president and second in command of that program, which was the eighth largest in the nation.

      A group of Charlotteans led by the late Bill Disher of Lance Corporation recruited Volponi and he signed on in the Queen City. He inherited a Charlotte JA program that was 98th largest in America, serving 3,800 students a year with a budget of $273,611.83—yes, he knows it down to the penny.

      Some colleagues wondered why Volponi would leave Pittsburgh for Charlotte, but he was hooked. “One of the things that was incredibly invigorating was the sense of energy around trying to build something here,” he explains. “This was a community that was proud of its history, its tradition. The community leaders said, ‘We like where we’re at; however, we have rather ambitious plans.’”

     Over the years, Volponi has methodically added board members, contributors, volunteers, staff and programs. Today, in 12,300 square feet in the basement of South Tryon Square in Center City, Junior Achievement of Central Carolinas operates with more than 4,000 volunteers and 19 full-time staffers. It impacts about 44,000 Charlotte students a year.

     Volponi’s organization has satellite operations in Asheville and Wilmington, N.C., and Rock Hill, S.C. So the total number of students it served last year was 66,140. With a budget of almost $2.4 million, it is now the country’s 15th largest JA.

     Volponi’s operation now has programs for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, including JA Titan in which high school students compete in business via Internet with students in places such as Uzbekistan, Jordan, South Africa and the People’s Republic of China.

     Ninety percent of Volponi’s JA participants are in the public schools, but this program is among the few in the nation that also operates in some private and charter schools.

     Volponi is perhaps proudest of the JA BizTown program, which made such an impression on Felipe Sanchez. It serves fourth graders in Mecklenburg County and fifth graders in York County, S.C.; it can adjust to wherever it fits best in the state curriculum.

     Weeks of classroom instruction from JA volunteers culminate in a visit to the simulated community at JA Central where students can choose careers in 15 different areas. From about 8 a.m. until around 2:30 p.m. that day, the students play the role of executives or elected officials. They turn a profit or suffer a loss; they sell and buy products and services; and they get a paycheck.


Teaching Financial Literacy

      “We’re teaching financial literacy,” Volponi says simply. He remembers the fourth grader from Winterfield Elementary who had a ready answer when asked what he’d learned in his JA BizTown visit: “It’s hard to work with other people,” he sighed.

     The numerical equation for this area’s 50th anniversary celebration, Volponi says, is 50 plus five equals 860,000. It’s not new math, he smiles. The 50 represents total number of years JA has had operations here; the five is the years JA BizTown has been in place; and the 860,000 is how many students this JA has served since its inception.

     Volponi is striving to install more new programs. There’s something called the Capstone Experience for middle graders and there’s JA Finance Park for eighth and ninth graders. He’d like to open a JA operation in Winston-Salem. He’s considering a portable free-market exhibit that would roll from city to city.

     The hardest part of his job, Volponi says, is dealing with budget constraints that prevent him from serving 100 percent of the area’s students. In Charlotte, JA touches one in every three students, a ratio that’s remained steady for a dozen years as the population swells.

     Junior Achievement is a non-profit organization and Volponi pursues funding from individuals, foundations and schools as well as from businesses. He’s enlarged the JA board to 52 and made a conscious effort to include members from a larger segment of the economy. Representatives of the big banks and Duke Energy remain, but they’ve been joined by members from medium-sized and small businesses in sectors from manufacturing to services.

     Volponi enjoys relating the story of a Mecklenburg County girl in fourth-grade who shied from accepting an accountant position at JA BizTown because she thought she wasn’t good at math. But she accepted the challenge and excelled. Now she wants to major in mathematics when she attends college.

     “That’s what recharges the batteries,” says Volponi, whose two teenage stepsons make JA summer camp an annual ritual.

     Volponi professes he’s happy with his Charlotte-based program. “I don’t wake up thinking about other opportunities,” he says. “It’s like we tell young people—focus on the position and responsibilities you have. Grow each day. Continue to learn.

     “Any time I have a rough day, I have 110 nine- and ten-year-olds on the other side of the wall,” he says as he points in the general direction of JA BizTown. “They have a glint in their eyes and a boundless amount of energy.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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