Turning its focus to transitioning onsite programs into virtual experiences, Junior Achievement continues the learning — and learns a little itself, too
Photo: Karen Chafe, director, programs and operations, JA South Western Ontario
CAN YOU FORM a successful business with 15 people you have never met in person and likely never will?
That was the question posed to students involved in Junior Achievement’s Company Program (a four-month program that teaches grade nine to 12 students how to organize and operate a real business) last year, when it became apparent that JA was not going to be able to use the traditional in-person program model for the 2020-21 school year.
The resounding answer: Yup, we can.
JA had done a quick pivot last year, when the first wave of pandemic shutdowns arrived two weeks before the 2019-20 Company Program wrapped up.
“We were able to get the students to complete their last two meetings online, and then we started thinking forward because we didn’t know what this school year would look like,” recalls Karen Chafe, JA South Western Ontario director, programs and operations. “We decided to move totally to virtual.”
On a national level, that meant rethinking how all JA programs — entrepreneurship, financial literacy, work readiness — were designed and delivered. Virtual platforms were already in JA’s plans, but the pandemic fast-forwarded the timeline to launch them, says Chafe.
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The Southwestern Ontario and Waterloo Region JAs partnered to bring students from across both regions together online for this year’s Company Program, and being forced to move to a fully virtual format yielded some unexpected and interesting benefits, observes Chafe.
“We were able to mix students from 23 different communities, and that brought different perspectives to each company,” she says. “They were forced to try new ways of doing business, with more e-commerce and online marketing strategies.”
“This structure has brought new ideas and energy and to the program,” echoes SWO JA’s president and CEO, Bev Robinson.
The 160 students involved in the Company Program formed 12 businesses, and they had to be creative and think beyond the typical products and services that have been offered by past companies in the program.
Some ideas were Covid driven: an e-activity book for kids; a pandemic self-care kit; an online activity program for kids; stay-in-touch postcards. Others companies opted for products with a purpose, such as clothing that promotes mental health awareness or that raises money to protect oceans and marine wildlife.
Financial literacy education, which has always been delivered by Junior Achievement in school classrooms by trained volunteers, hasn’t been possible during the pandemic. To overcome that hurdle, JA created the JACampus.org where teachers can access program materials and resources to teach financial education with the assistance of virtual volunteers.
There are also self-directed courses that parents and students can access from home. The courses range in scope from teaching the business essentials for a successful career in the trades to investment basics aimed at helping youth save and plan for the future.
Local teachers have made good use of the new virtual programs — JA SWO is on track to engage approximately 7,000 students in the 2020-21 school year.
Other programs were also pivoted. For example, World of Choices, traditionally an annual in-person and interactive conference where students could learn about career paths directly from professionals who work in different fields, was moved online and revamped to fit the quadmester schedule of high schools.
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In total, JA South Western Ontario and JA Waterloo have been able to host 12 virtual events across the school year, featuring keynote speakers and breakout sessions tied to a variety of themes, including Empowered Women in early March, which featured a diverse lineup of female CEOs, entrepreneurs and innovators.
Putting a flexible, virtual delivery model in play, notes Chafe, has also enabled JA to reach youth in smaller communities and engage students who might not otherwise be involved in JA programs.
“This past year has been really challenging, but also refreshing,” she says. “We will go back into classrooms, but I don’t see us totally going back to the previous ways of delivering JA programs.” Kym Wolfe