A Look Behind the Scenes as JA Prepares for Schools to Reopen

junior achievement boy with backpack

A quick pivot to digital programming in the Spring was an unexpected challenge for us. Little did we know at the time this would just be an audition for designing a whole new delivery system of Junior Achievement (JA) programs in the 2020-2021 school year!

While school districts in Colorado and Wyoming are announcing a variety of reopening plans, two things are certain across the board: visitors will not be permitted inside school buildings even for those that have students learning in person, and field trips will not be possible. This poses unique challenges for JA, as we have always relied on volunteers to deliver lessons and hands-on educational activities in the classroom, and immersive learning experiences like JA Job Shadows, JA Stock Market Challenge, and JA Finance Park presented by Transamerica outside of the classroom.

This year, JA needs to maintain the same high caliber learning experiences we are known for, experiences that are meaningful and inspiring to students. That means doing more than simply digitizing learning materials. We are in the process of reworking how our programs are structured with the goal of supporting teachers with content that augments their learning environment.

Keeping Kids Engaged

In the Spring, JA quickly recorded and distributed videos of virtual volunteers talking about their careers, entrepreneurial paths, how COVID-19 has impacted businesses and the economy, and more. We also provided elementary teachers with pre-recorded videos of volunteers leading JA lessons. Video is a different animal when it comes to kids’ attention spans, though, so JA Chief Learning Officer Mike MacDonnell and his team are focusing on creating shorter-length videos with activities that keep students engaged.

“Our challenge, especially at the elementary level, is how do we create engaging video content with activities that students can do in an almost self-directed manner,” MacDonnell says. “They won’t be able to work in groups, they won’t be able to share the physical game pieces, so the goal is to create an easy way to plug in activities for kids in an individual manner that supports the lesson, with the least burden on teachers as possible.”

That’s where JA volunteers come in, to guide students as they always do, only virtually. JA is aiming to provide programs with volunteers through both pre-recorded videos as well as live video conferencing so that teachers have flexibility in how they’d like to implement lessons. With the geographical location of schools no longer a factor, the hope is that individuals will have greater flexibility when signing up to volunteer. JA’s programs team plans to update trainings for virtual volunteers for both mediums so that they feel comfortable when presenting.

“We need to tailor our volunteer training to help our volunteers with content delivery on this new medium,” MacDonnell says. “Some of our veteran volunteers can help train others with helpful tips and examples as well. We’d love to utilize them in this new process.”

Collecting Teacher Feedback

MacDonnell and his team have been holding a series of virtual feedback sessions with teachers this summer to hear their thoughts on initial program plans and listen to their needs. “All of the teachers really love bringing in that outside voice for their students, and appreciate JA for having these conversations with them now and trying to foresee the implications of their new learning environment,” he says.

Making Sure What JA Does Works for Everybody

As many Colorado and Wyoming students will be learning from home this school year as well, JA plans to make volunteer guided videos available that parents and online teachers can utilize.  For students who do not have a computer or a reliable internet connection at their home, standalone resources and activities that teach kids about money, careers, and entrepreneurship will continue to be available, and distributed through community partners.

“Reliable high-speed internet is not always a guarantee in some of our more rural communities in Wyoming and eastern Colorado, so we actually had some parents thank us for giving them such valuable homework and activities for their kids,” says Elizabeth Winn, JA District Director for Northern Colorado and Wyoming. “We really value our rural communities and we need to make sure what we do works for everybody.”

Winn and her staff communicated regularly with area Boys and Girls Clubs, the Wyoming Afterschool Alliance, the Bohemian Foundation, and other community organizations in the spring to make sure JA resources were getting into the hands of educators, as well as families. Moving forward, Winn plans to work with local companies to create recorded program content for a variety of JA programs. One of those companies is Fort Collins-based Otter Products. “They are a long-time supporter of JA and they really value our programs, so we know they can create fun and engaging videos of employees across several different departments delivering programs while also talking about their profession, and even giving students a tour-like experience of the company.”

“These videos will be high quality because they can be produced by professionals. I am so grateful to Otter and the other companies that we have initiated talks with. This will really help make JA program implementation as easy as possible for teachers,” Winn says.

While school plans will likely continue to evolve, JA remains focused on adapting programs to meet the needs of teachers and delivering programs that inspire students.

MacDonnell adds, “Things are changing day by day, but for us we’re just going to keep focusing on what we can do to provide an impactful and lasting experience for students in a virtual environment.”