Balancing a budget, running a business or finding a pathway to a future career can be overwhelming at any age.
In an effort to prepare local students for these real-life scenarios, Augusta University is teaming up as a community partner with Junior Achievement of Georgia and the local school districts in Richmond and Columbia counties to help teach future generations ways they can succeed in a global economy.
Approximately 15,000 local middle school students each year will learn valuable life skills, such as financial literacy and career readiness, in an entertaining and interactive environment, thanks to the development of a new 30,000-square-foot Junior Achievement Discovery Center off Riverwatch Parkway in Evans.
Scheduled to open in January 2024, the development of the JA Discovery Center by McKnight Construction was made possible through a joint partnership with Junior Achievement of Georgia, the Columbia County School District and the Richmond County School System.
“Junior Achievement is a global nonprofit with a big focus on financial literacy. We teach kids real-life skills,” said Ashley Whitaker, the director of development for Junior Achievement of Georgia for the Greater Augusta Area. “Our teachers do a really great job on all of the fundamentals, such as math and English and all those really important subjects that we all study in school.
“However, Junior Achievement’s goal is to add to those fundamentals and blend business and education in a way that helps our kids be able to go out in the real world after they leave high school. So, whether they are going to college or trade school or right into their career of choice, we want them to be able to succeed in a global economy.”
Augusta University will serve as one of 18 community partners in the JA Discovery Center, along with other businesses, local governments and organizations such as Delta Air Lines, Publix, United Way, the Community Foundation of the Central Savannah River Area, SRP Federal Credit Union, Jim Hudson Lexus, Georgia Power, Chick-fil-A, Augusta Technical College, Augusta-Richmond County and Columbia County.
“When you walk through the doors of the JA Discovery Center, it is going to look like a miniature CSRA. There are going to be elements from Richmond County and Columbia County representing that space,” Whitaker said, explaining each of the community partners will have a “storefront” inside the facility’s simulation space. “The idea is for the kids to be able to walk into what looks like a realistic community.”
“It will include elements that they see every day when they are in the car with their parents. For example, there will be a replica of Sacred Heart Cultural Center, The Boyhood Home of Woodrow Wilson and Evans Towne Center Park,” she added. “And since this facility is going to be approximately 30,000 square feet, it is going to be the state’s largest discovery center outside the Atlanta area, which is really exciting.”
A win-win partnership
Tina Baggott, associate vice president for Augusta University’s Volunteer Services and Community Engagement, said building community connections and strong relationships with local nonprofits has always been a part of the university’s mission.
“The JA Discovery Center is going to be great for the area and also for the university. It is really a win-win partnership for us,” Baggott said. “For the area, it is a wonderful resource for all middle school students in Columbia County and Richmond County. And there are plans to expand into the neighboring counties, including Aiken County, as well as our more rural lying areas. That means every single middle school student in the CSRA will eventually have the opportunity to experience the JA Discovery Center.”
“In the sixth grade, they will be doing more entrepreneurship-type simulation programs, like learning what it takes to run a business and build a business,” Baggott said. “In seventh grade, the students will be doing more personal finance activities and simulations on what it means to set up a household budget, pay bills, learn how much items cost and realize how a credit rating can impact them.”
Prior to the field trips to the JA Discovery Center, students will have 20-plus hours of in-class learning with their teachers on subjects such as resume writing, interviewing skills, creating household budgets and handling personal finances, Whitaker said.
Specifically, sixth-graders will be given a job within one of the many storefronts in JA BizTown and will learn what it is like to work in that position, Whitaker explained.
“Students earn a paycheck, pay taxes and each business, even though these are well-established businesses, has to apply for a business loan,” Whitaker said. “They have to decide how long they are going to defer that interest for the loan, and then, once they know how much they need to raise in order to go into business, they have a product that they have to price, advertise and eventually sell outside their designated storefront.”
The products students sell are donated by each of the community partners, she said.
“It is a really fun and high-energy activity for the kids,” Whitaker said. “And the students get to keep those products that they buy during the simulation and take them home to their mom or dad. So, it is also a really good branding and outreach opportunity for our community partners.”
New pathways in higher education
With Augusta University’s storefront in the JA Discovery Center, Baggott said the university has the opportunity to introduce 15,000 middle school students to the possibilities of higher education.
“With our storefront, we really tried to put our heads together to determine what is going to be compelling to a middle schooler, but also what is important for that age student to know and think about when they are thinking about higher education,” she said. “We’ve spent the last three to four months really digging in and designing a space within the JA Discovery Center that is going to be a strong representation of who Augusta University is, but also a strong representation of what it means to go to a university and to have a college experience.”
Sergio Gallardo, creative director for Communications and Marketing at Augusta University, said he wanted students entering the space to visually see the different career pathways they could follow if they chose to come to Augusta University.
“We wanted the students to interactively use the graphics on the wall to pick a pathway they are going to follow. So are they more of a creative kind of student? Are they more of an analytical student? Do they like science and math? Do they like cyber? Do they have a more medical or clinical focus?” Gallardo said. “The concept is all about studying what you love and then finding your path.”
The pathways begin at a replica of the arch at the main entrance of the Summerville Campus, and each of the five pathways lead to graduation at Augusta University, Gallardo said.
“My main goal in designing the space was to have the students come in, look at the space and say, ‘Oh, that’s super cool. I could see myself going there,’” Gallardo said. “We wanted to plant that seed of inspiration and that memory of, ‘Oh, I remember Augusta University. It was in that JA Discovery Center we went to when I was in sixth grade, and they had this cool space.’ That memory could possibly attract a potential student to Augusta University.”
Baggott said Augusta University put together a “dream team” to develop and design the storefront.
“Our design planning process was led by a multi-disciplinary design and implementation team with representation from Communications and Marketing, Innovation, Instructional Design, Facilities, Art and Design, the College of Education, as well as Community Engagement,” Baggott said. “It was definitely a team effort to take the idea from concept through to design and implementation.”
John Hancock, president and CEO of JA of Georgia, said when he initially began discussing the possibility of the JA Discovery Center being constructed in the Augusta area, one of the first suggestions for a community partner was Augusta University.
“When we first started coming to town to talk about the JA Discovery Center, we started asking people, ‘Who needs to be represented in our space in order to make sure that this JA Discovery Center is representative of the community?’ We were told, ‘You’ve got to have Augusta University,’” Hancock said. “They said, ‘Augusta University is just such an important part of not only our city, but our state. We need to have Augusta University represented in the JA Discovery Center.’ So, having Augusta University as a community partner was a no-brainer.”
Hancock said JA of Georgia is looking forward to opening the new JA Discovery Center this fall, and he wanted to commend Richmond County Superintendent of Schools Kenneth Bradshaw, EdD, and Columbia County Superintendent of Schools Steve Flynt, EdD, for their unwavering support of the project.
“All of the credit goes to Steve Flynt and Ken Bradshaw because they saw a vision for a JA Discovery Center here and how it could help their respective school districts,” Hancock said. “But they knew that neither one of their school districts was big enough to justify having one on their own, so they decided to do it together. They joined forces to support the entire community. They are fantastic local leaders.”