By Meg Daradanova
Estero Volunteers Fuel Junior Achievement Economic Literacy Initiative
Have you taught your middle schooler how to balance a checkbook yet? Or explained to your 7 year old what taxes are? Thanks to the Estero Education Initiative’s “2-5-8-Graduate” program, chances are, your kids already learned about these topics during the 2018-19 school year.
Heading into the second year of the initiative — a three-way partnership between Junior of Achievement of Southwest Florida, the Village of Estero and the School District of Lee County — all parties agree it is a resounding success. Starting in second grade and running all the way through high school graduation, Estero students learn how the economy works — down to the personal finance level — in a hands-on and engaging format.
The program is fueled largely by the massive volunteer recruitment effort of the Estero Council of Community Leaders (ECCL) Education Outreach Council. As a result of this commitment, 328 Junior Achievement (JA) class sessions were taught in Estero schools, reaching more than 1,300 students.
Most volunteers team-teach five, 45-minute classes in the grade level of their choice. During the inaugural year of the program, the 2-5-8-Graduate initiative recruited a total of 97 volunteers from all walks of life: 47 of them were parents of Estero students, while others were owners or managers of Estero area businesses and civic organizations. A significant number were retired professionals residing in the area during the school year. And, quite notably, just eight had ever facilitated a JA class before.
“No special skills are required other than love for the students,” says Dr. Kevin Tolliver, who stepped up to volunteer in second grade. “Seeing the kids’ excitement, engagement and enthusiasm was very fulfilling.”
Dave Nichols and his teaching partner Cheryl Lauterbach, both retirees, also jumped at the chance to be in a second grade classroom. They keep each other on track with lessons, all the while having great fun and getting hugs from the kids.
“The materials are all inclusive with all the necessary props and handouts,” adds Nichols.
Last school year, every 2nd, 5th, 8th and 11th grader in the four Estero area schools (Pinewoods Elementary, Three Oaks El
ementary, Three Oaks Middle and Estero High) engaged in JA curriculum taught by volunteer facilitators.
For the upcoming 2019-20 school year, the program is expanding to include a personal finance course for high school seniors. In total, the 2-5-8-Graduate initiative will need more than 120 volunteers to bring JA’s curriculum of community, economics and career development to Estero students.
“We are seeking volunteers who have an interest and passion to mentor and educate our youth about these essential life skills,” says Vanessa Santiago, Education Manager for JA of SWFL.
Estero schools have done their part to welcome and accommodate the program. Although there was some initial anxiety about giving up teaching time for JA sessions, the program proved to be a “win-win” for everyone involved, reports Leslie Gunderson, principal of Pinewoods Elementary.
“Not only were the lessons engaging and fun,” adds Jody Moorhead, principal of Three Oaks Elementary, “the students learned so much about financial literacy. The teachers definitely want the program to return.”
Behind these classes lie months of planning. Every week, Jim Shields, the Estero resident who carries the torch for the initiative, sits down at the Club at Grandezza with a small steering committee as they discuss schedules for the months ahead.
Shields is somewhat biased in favor of Junior Achievement: “My own experience back in 1957 changed my life,” he says. The centenarian organization gave him mentorship and a vision for the future when he most needed it, he adds. And today, Shields is volunteering his time and skills to make sure every Estero student is given the same opportunity.
At Estero High, JA’s Career Success curriculum strives to equip juniors with the knowledge and skills to read the job market, find their passion, and look for a job. Recognizing that we need professionals in all fields is rewarding not only for students who are already applying to college, but also to those who plan to pursue careers in skilled labor fields, like electricians or construction workers. Indeed, 84 percent of the juniors at Estero High indicated they are ready to set goals for their future as a result of the program, and 92% said they would recommend it to a friend.
At Three Oaks Middle School, Robotics teacher Jennifer MacLeod considers the lessons invaluable: “A kid once told me that electricity comes with the house. He didn’t think of it as an additional bill he’d have to pay one day.”
Paying taxes, buying medical insurance, balancing a checkbook, taking a loan…all these hallmarks of adult life are demystified in her eighth grade classroom. MacLeod adds that the finance professionals who volunteer for JA really impress the students.
“The kids want to know how you can become bankrupt, or rack up debt,” she says. “Explaining credit to them really opens their eyes to the dangers of overspending.”