NEW ULM - Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest, an organization that helps deliver a business knowledge and financial literacy curriculum to students in grades K-12, is this year's recipient of District 88's Community Support Award.
Supported by local businesses and organizations - and drawing on the commitment of dozens of volunteer professionals - the program boasts a high level of penetration and, according to various measures, success.
But what is Junior Achievement?
Lisa Besemer, an employee of Frandsen Bank, teaches second-graders at Jefferson Elementary about government employees, taxes and private business, and their roles in a community.
Started nationally in 1919 as a program targeting city kids, by the same man who founded 4H for country kids, Junior Achievement pioneered in the New Ulm area in the 1970s, in an after-school format, reports Tami Reuter, Director of Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest.
Re-shaped as a classroom curriculum, it has been consistently provided in New Ulm and nearby communities since 2001.
Junior Achievement's unique delivery system provides the training, materials and support necessary to bolster chances for student success, Reuter reports.
At the classroom teacher's invitation, JA helps arrange for business people and local community leaders to visit the classroom a few times or throughout the year or semester.
They volunteer to share their workforce experience with the students, all while teaching sound economic principles and reinforcing the class curricula.
JA provides a K-12 menu of programs and a curriculum designed to be sequential in scope and correlated to state social studies, language arts and math standards.
More than 1,800 students from public and private schools in New Ulm, Sleepy Eye, Courtland, Lafayette and St. James were served in 90-plus classes in 2009-2010. (The numbers were comparable in the previous three years.)
Elementary programs (grades K-5) are taught during the school day, in five classroom visits of 30-40 minutes each. There is no cost to participate.
The curriculum includes: Ourselves (K), Our Families (1), Our Community (2), Our City (3), Our Region (4), Our Nation (5) and Dollars and Sense (after school).
JA BizTown serves as a capstone to the elementary program. It involves a two to six-week classroom curriculum taught by the teacher and a full day in a free market learning lab (in Maplewood, $15 student fee).
The middle-grades program (grades 6-8) includes six classroom visits, 40-50 minutes each (no cost to participate).
The curriculum includes units such as Global Marketplace, America Works, Economics for Success, Go Figure! and It's My Business.
Finance Park, a new curriculum, according to Reuter, is geared toward grades 7-12 and taught by the teacher over two to six weeks; it involves an online simulation conducted in a local computer lab with volunteers (no cost to participate in 2009-10).
High school units, in turn, include Economics, Exploring Economics, Company Program, Success Skills, Titan, Job Shadow, Careers with a Purpose and Business Ethics.
They are taught in five to seven classroom visits, 45-50 minutes each (no cost).
The average cost of a JA program is $500 per classroom; however, thanks to local business sponsorship, the cost to local schools in zero, says Reuter.
The community supports the JA programs in the New Ulm area to the tune of approximately $33,000 each year.
According to external evaluators, elementary school students who participate in JA demonstrate significantly higher critical thinking and problem solving skills than their counterparts, said Reuter.
Teachers (95 percent) and volunteers (92 percent) report that students who participate in JA have a better understanding of how the real world operates.
Both teachers and volunteers agree that JA students work together better as a team and are more capable of making group responses.
The majority of middle school students - 71 percent - reported that JA helped them recognize the importance of education and motivated to work harder to achieve educational and work goals, reported Reuter.
Middle school students understand more about personal finance, business and economic concepts after participating in JA programs.
The majority of high school students - 79 percent - agreed that JA positively influenced their attitudes toward continuing their education.
Most of them report that JA made the transition to college easier, encouraged them to work hard and provided them information that was relevant.
JA, at all levels, is preparing students to develop successful financial management habits, empowering them to explore the potential of becoming an entrepreneur and providing them skills necessary to succeed in a global economy, concludes Reuter.
Steve Weber, co-principal at the New Ulm Public High School and formerly middle school (grades 7-8) principal, is positive about the program.
It provides "real world, practical opportunities," said Weber.
For students, it's, "here's what the real world looks like," says Weber.
But the contact is also educational for teachers and the volunteers themselves - who see how the schools operate as well, added Weber.
JA also has teaching resources available for parents, according to Reuter.