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JA BizTown is this generation’s Exchange City

Young people in Kansas City during a field trip to Junior Achievement's BizTown
Junior Achievement's BizTown welcomes students from across Kansas City to a micro-version of the city for a field trip that promotes real-world skill-building, entrepreneurial mindset, and a better understanding of the role they play as citizens, employees, and consumers in their communities.

Much like the Exchange City field trips Kansas City kids of the 1980s and ‘90s remember, at JA BizTown, students learn real-world skills and how to grow an entrepreneurial mindset while ‘running’ a simulated, micro Kansas City.

Ask a Kansas City resident who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s about their favorite school field trip, and there’s a good chance that memories of Exchange City will come flooding back. The beloved program, supported by Ewing Marion Kauffman, exemplified Mr. K’s passion for fostering entrepreneurial skills and real-world learning.

A hands-on learning lab with storefronts representing businesses and civic institutions, Exchange City drew schoolkids from across Kansas City to its doors. They would spend a day at “work” in various roles – as a banker, radio station DJ, even mayor – learning critical hands-on skills. It was a different kind of classroom where students could learn about civic engagement and develop financial literacy skills.

WATCH: “This is the Sound of JA BizTown” | 0:33

Exchange City shuttered years ago, but in June 2021, Junior Achievement (JA) of Greater Kansas City opened JA BizTown to educate a new generation of students. A Kauffman Foundation grantee, JA has welcomed 9,100 fourth, fifth and sixth graders, to run Kansas City – or JA BizTown’s simulated version of it on 47th Street – for a day.

Prior to the visit, JA provides educators with training and ongoing support to prepare students in the classroom using a comprehensive curriculum focused on topics like budgeting and work readiness. During the four- to five-hour session at JA BizTown, students put their learning to work. Guided by adult volunteers, they learn and do a range of business activities, from securing startup loans and creating revenue strategies to managing payroll, marketing, and advertising.

There’s little doubt that JA BizTown is fun, but it’s also successful. According to a 2022-2023 impact study by the Urban Education Research Center some 94% of teachers involved in the 2022-2023 sessions reported that JA BizTown provided applicable real-world learning and knowledge, and 86% said their students now understand the idea that a career is work that matches skills, interests, and abilities. And 87% of students believe they can create their own future after completing the JA BizTown experience.

Ultimately, the aim is for kids to come out of the program with money management skills gained through practical experience, a basic understanding of business practices and the free enterprise system, and a clear picture of the world of work – all of which contribute to an entrepreneurial mindset. They also better understand the role they play as citizens, employees, and consumers in their communities.

JA BizTown’s objectives tie into Junior Achievement’s mission of preparing all students for economic mobility so they may live choice-filled futures. “As an organization, we embrace two core strategies to achieve a community with economically capable kids in Kansas City – leveraging the power of experiential learning and building social capital – to bring our core principles of career readiness, financial decision making, and entrepreneurial mindset to life,” said JA President and CEO Megan Sturges-Stanfield.

[JA BizTown] is giving youth the opportunity to build and become something. They start to build their belief system. Believing in yourself is a really important start.

— Chase McAnulty
CEO, Charlie Hustle

JA BizTown is where these strategies intersect.

The names of Kansas City businesses that sponsor JA BizTown, and who have branded storefronts in the micro KC, are likely familiar to students, including CommunityAmerica Credit Union, Price Chopper, T-Mobile, and the Kansas City Zoo and Aquarium. Many note that JA BizTown allows them to not only give back to a community that supports them, but help students build foundational skills and competencies needed for their future careers, such as critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving, and effective communication.

JA BizTown is a confidence builder, too, says Chase McAnulty, CEO of Charlie Hustle. “It’s giving youth the opportunity to build and become something. They start to build their belief system. Believing in yourself is a really important start.”

Sturges-Stanfield also points to how helping students experience a microeconomy can inspire the kind of entrepreneurial mindset that Ewing Marion Kauffman so prized. “Learning and practicing these skills leads to greater confidence and cultivates powerful mindsets, such as growth, hope, audacity, and self-agency, which ignites and fuels a thriving economy and entrepreneurial ecosystem, ” Sturges-Stanfield said.

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It also fosters a sense of community. For many elementary school children, this is likely their first opportunity to make independent decisions and experience the outcome. “I have witnessed, countless times, the mindset shift from when students arrive, with a very ‘me’-focused mentality, to the end of the day, where they are working as a team, making collaborative decisions, helping each other succeed, and celebrating acts of good citizenship,” Sturges-Stanfield said.

“The kids have an innate desire to solve problems and make a difference,” she said. “JA BizTown gives them the space and place to experience these actions and the impact of their decisions – personally and as a community.”