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Colorado Fifth Graders Learn Job And Life Skills At 'Young AmeriTowne'

Greeley Mayor John Gates recently presided over a special swearing-in ceremony at Aims Community College. He told the small group of town hall employees to raise their right hand and repeat after him.

"I do solemnly swear," Gates stated.

"I do solemnly swear," they answered in unison.

The municipal workers taking their oath of office are fifth-grade students at Ann K. Heiman Elementary school in nearby Evans. Today, they work for a fictitious town called Young AmeriTowne.

After the ceremony, the new Young AmeriTowne mayor, 10-year-old Austin Longhenry, cuts a ribbon draped across Towne Hall and starts the day with an official order.

"The town is open," he declared. "Go to work."

As the radio station started blaring music, about 50 fifth graders quickly scattered around the large room and headed to their jobs.

Credit Janet Redwine / Young Americans Center for Financial Education
Greeley Mayor John Gates jokes with Towne Hall employees before Young AmeriTowne’s swearing-in ceremony.

Producers and consumers

Young AmeriTowne is a collection of nine businesses housed in booths, set up in a U shape. The students run all of them, from the newspaper to the container store to the sign and print shop. They are the producers and consumers.

Janice Bercian, 10, was the manager of the medical center and oversaw her employees, also known as her classmates. A couple of them were EMS workers who roamed the town square and handed out cards with different medical ailments. The sick patients came to the medical center and met with a doctor.

When one of the patients complained of dizziness, Bercian was right there to make sure he was treated correctly.

"All right, he's feeling dizzy," she said. "They got to check that off on the computer."

Bercian and the other business managers were paid $25 for the day while their employees made $20. These paychecks are important because the students pay for all goods and services, including doctor visits which cost $2.

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Medical Center manger Janice Bercian and one of her doctors treat a patient in Towne Square.

Hands-on experience

In 1987 Bill Daniels founded Young Americans Bank, the world's only bank designed specifically for young people under the age of 22. The goal was to give kids hands-on experience in banking and personal finance.

A year later, the bank opened a companion nonprofit, Young Americans Center for Financial Education, which operates large-scale school-based experiential learning programs including Young AmeriTowne.

"What we are trying to do here is truly represent a free enterprise economy. So, all different aspects of careers and businesses from banking to Towne Hall to manufacturing," said Rich Martinez, president and CEO of Young Americans Bank and Young Americans Center for Financial Education. "So, that they understand how a free enterprise economy operates with those different career segments."

The program is entering its 30th year and has served over half a million kids. There are two permanent locations in Denver and Lakewood, while AmeriTowne On the Road travels around the state. The program serves 50% of Colorado fifth graders every year.

YoungAmeriTowne was specifically designed for this age group, Martinez said, because their minds are like sponges and they think roleplaying an adult is still cool.

"That combination is just magical and getting this information into their heads and influencing their future and their future mindsets and their future career aspirations," he said.

Credit Vickie Coggin
Joel Coggin, a cabinet designer and small business owner, stands with a bookcase he made.

Joel Coggin is a cabinet designer and small business owner in Centennial. He participated in Young AmeriTowne about 20 years ago and remembers learning how to write checks and manage finances.

Coggin enjoyed Young AmeriTowne but had no idea what he wanted to do back then. Older kids, who might already have a career path in mind, Coggin said, would benefit from this type of program too.

"I think that'd be real valuable to teach them that, 'Hey, this is how you start a business, this is how you files taxes or do sales tax or get a loan or buy a car,'" he said. "I think it could be real valuable for both the individual and society as a whole."

Young Americans Center for Financial Education agrees. In addition to Young AmeriTowne, the nonprofit has a variety of programs for kids of ages that focus on global business, philanthropy and entrepreneurship.

'Rise to the occasion'

Young AmeriTowne begins in the classroom, a few weeks before the fifth graders run the town. Teachers are given a robust curriculum to prepare the students. They elected the mayor and judge, learned how to balance a checkbook, created a business plan and studied other economic, civics and personal finance lessons.

"The experience culminates with us where we actually run the physical day of town," said Chris O'Reilly, AmeriTowne On the Road program director. "Where they're running their own shop for the day, their keeping track of their personal finances. They're trying to have their business team be successful."

This is the third time teacher Kayla Schlitz has brought her class to Young AmeriTowne. The students created job applications, applied for five or six jobs and then the teachers placed them in the businesses.

"I usually pick kids that don't want to be manager, that's like their lower choice," Schlitz said. "I usually put them in a manager (position) to see if they can rise to the occasion. They always do."

Included in this group is Schlitz's student and medical center manager Janice Bercian. She has worked hard and is doing a great job at Young AmeriTowne, said Schlitz, who believes this experience will really matter to Bercian moving forward.

"I want her to consider big careers, especially myself being a girl," she continued. "I want them to consider that they can do these big roles and be a leader in a job and that she can handle it."

Snack Shop sale
Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
A fifth-grade student from Ann. K. Heiman Elementary school uses her debit card to make a purchase at the Snack Shop in Young AmeriTowne.

Lessons for the future

Bercian was on her work break and headed across the room to the bank to deposit her $25 paycheck. $10 went into her checking account and the rest Bercian got in cash. Her next stop was the Snack Shop where she bought a Gatorade for $5.

"So, they act as consumer on their break time," O'Reilly said. "They get a paycheck, they cash it out, they spent their money, they have a real checking account, a real live online checking account that's hooked to their debit and card and their checkbooks."

Bercian had fun at AmeriTowne and said she was happy to have been assigned to the medical center. Her mother is from Guatemala and was a nurse there, and Bercian wants to follow in her footsteps.

"I want to do in the future like be a doctor for kids or a like a nurse at a hospital."

Bercian will take what she learned back home. She and her family are saving money together to celebrate her quinceañera, her 15th birthday, in five years.

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