Its mission is to prepare and inspire young people for success in the global economy. So, says the president of Junior Achievement of Arkansas, “What we’re really trying to do is get a little piece of blackboard space.”

To get its “piece of blackboard space,” Chad Kauffman says Junior Achievement of Arkansas touches 15,000 students in the Northwest, North Central, and Central parts of the state using 500 volunteers, who teach more than twenty specialized JA business curriculums at schools and organizations.

Junior Achievement nationally was founded in1919 but didn’t come to Arkansas until 1987. There are 121 JA chapters around the country and Kauffman says Arkansas’ is the second youngest.

Founded by Little Rock businessman, attorney, and politician Sheffield Nelson, Kauffman says in the early days, “Nelson had CEOs helping him run it, and pulled the board together. He got some input from the national organization and then they grew it to the point where they could hire a staff and get it going.”

Now the energetic Kauffman, a Little Rock native with twenty years of non-profit experience, oversees a small staff that has done big things since he took over as president two years ago. When he began, his organization had 9,000 elementary to high school students enrolled in its programs. Next school year he says that figure should reach 18,000 – an astounding improvement he credits to a basic approach of marketing within already established regions of the state.

“When I got here we needed to reach dramatic growth, so we looked at our current footprint and went for drilling down,” Kauffman explained.

It is the pillar concepts of work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy that Junior Achievement uses as the centerpiece for its instruction curriculum to reach its footprint of students in Arkansas. But to make that happen, JA needs partnerships with schools, volunteers, and money from donors.

“You need all of those in ample supply,” Kauffman says, “and by-in-large the schools know us and when we go and talk to them, they welcome us with open arms. The funding and the volunteers are the continuing challenge and because the program is during the school day, during the school year, you need people who can volunteer to leave their work, go to the school and deliver on multiple occasions. So you really need a robust, middle class sort of white collar worker on salary or somebody that owns their own business where they can leave their business and go and do this.”

Kauffman says it has been his experience that often when volunteers are approached and asked to go to the same classroom multiple times to deliver a curriculum plus participate in training they will say, “Here, let me just write you a check and find someone else who’s got that kind of time.”

However many Arkansas companies work with Junior Achievement to provide volunteers and some have a school in their “ shadow” where multiple volunteers will participate.

“And in a lot of instances,” Kauffman says, “we find companies who are interested in schools maybe with kids who are at risk, and we are able to go to the school and tell them there is a company that would like to do the program with your students and your teachers, and by-in-large that’s what we do.”

Typically, he says any one JA curriculum program for elementary classes is five to six sessions, usually once-a-week, where the volunteer will spend about an hour. For high school, Kauffman says it can be as many as eight sessions.

The curricula are established by the national office and updated every three years. He calls typical lessons like JA Economics for Success, JA Personal Finance, and JA Success Skills “really good stuff.” He says they are all age-appropriate and designed to meet state standards.

Kauffman says volunteers “bring themselves” into the classroom, where they are encouraged to talk about their background, their education, and their companies.

“Students see somebody outside of their typical school environment and what we find by volunteers bringing themselves in to it, is the relevancy for students goes through the roof,” says Kauffman. “Even though Mrs. Smith may be telling them day-in and day-out, ‘You need to graduate, you need to learn to write, you need to learn how to do math’, when Mr. Jones from the bank comes in and says those same things…the kids connect and start connecting the dots in a different way.”

Kauffman says about a third of his half-million dollar budget comes from special fund-raiser events, a third from corporate gifts, and the other third from foundation grants like from Southwestern Energy and the Walton Family Foundation.

He estimates his non-profit could receive $30,000 in sponsorships this fall from a special new competition for JA participating high schools. The AT&T Youth Business Challenge will be held on October 26 at UALR’s School of Business. Prior to the competition, students will become CEOs of a virtual company called JA Titan and learn how to run it through special tutorial interface software.

At the end of the training, teams-of-four from each high school will be able to enter the Challenge free and compete on the same computer interface for a $10,000 scholarship divided equally among the winning team members.

“We’ve started to market it to schools and they love it and we’re looking to market it to companies that would sponsor the teams,” Kauffman said.

He adds that kids that go through the JA program are more apt to graduate high school because they are able to connect the dots between getting an education and gaining their hopes and dreams when they get out.

“So for example there’s the student who wants to own their own business,” Kauffman explains. “Through the JA program, they are going to see through the volunteers and curriculum there are skills they don’t have yet, and realize what it means to be an entrepreneur.”

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Larry Brannan

Larry Brannan

Larry Brannan is a contributor to Talk Business & Politics and compiles our popular Weekend Digest stories. He can be reached by email at LTBrannon@aol.com.