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How the JA Discovery Center is helping local students learn about finance and careers
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Gainesville Middle School seventh-grader Emily Martinez and Dr. Hannah Reaune talk Monday, April 8, 2019, about their recent trip to the new Junior Achievement Discovery Center in Forsyth County. The Discovery Center allows middle school students from all over North Georgia learn financial literacy skills at an elaborate 25,000-square-foot facility on the campus of the Alliance Academy for Innovation. - photo by Scott Rogers

Emily Martinez, a Gainesville Middle School student, is learning a lot about the real world even though she’s just a seventh-grader.

In her largely Spanish-speaking household, Martinez has become like so many children of immigrants: interpreters for her parents.

Overcoming language barriers, however, is just one facet of how she helps her family manage everything from school schedules to driving directions.

Since visiting the Junior Achievement Discovery Center in Forsyth County with her class this past January, Martinez has implemented some of her newfound financial literacy at home when negotiating budgets and rental costs.

“So I got to put some of what I learned in that situation,” she said. “I think it was nice that we got to do it, because now we have some experience for what life is going to be like as adults.”

Junior Achievement is an international youth nonprofit headquartered in Colorado that fosters financial and career education through various programs across all grade levels.

In January 2017, Mike and Lynn Cottrell of Gainesville donated $3.5 million to build the regional JA Discovery Center off of Lanier 400 Parkway in Cumming.

The center serves public schools from surrounding areas, including Gainesville City Schools and Hall County Schools.

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Gainesville Middle School seventh-grader Emely Martinez speaks Monday, April 8, 2019, about what she learned recently after attending an event at the newly opened Junior Achievement Discovery Center in Forsyth County which allows middle school students from all over North Georgia to learn financial literacy skills at an elaborate 25,000-square-foot facility on the campus of the Alliance Academy for Innovation. - photo by Scott Rogers

The 25,000-square-foot facility on the Alliance Academy for Innovation campus in Cumming includes 18 different businesses, such as grocery stores, banks and government buildings.

Each building is a scale model of recognizable local and national names, like Zaxby's, RaceTrac, Georgia United Credit Union, Delta and Northside Hospital.

The Discovery Center anticipated serving more than 15,000 students in its first year of operation.

Teachers at Gainesville Middle said they have valued the partnership with the Discovery Center, and have incorporated this new curriculum into other classes.

“It’s hard to simulate in a classroom,” said Dr. Hannah Reaume, a seventh-grade teacher at Gainesville Middle. “We’re kind of giving them the ‘why’ now.”

All sixth- and seventh-graders attended during the course of a week in January.

The BizTown for sixth-graders gives students the chance to learn about running a business, from marketing a product to understanding its part in the larger economy.

According to the Discovery Center, “Students discover the intricacies of being a member of the community, while exploring a myriad of opportunities awaiting their futures.”

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Sixth and seventh grade students from Gainesville Middle School visited the Junior Achievement Discovery Center in Forsyth County in January to learn about real-world financial and career skills through interactive learning experiences. (Courtesy Gainesville Middle School)

And the Finance Park provides “an authentic simulation where students experience their financial futures. Guided by their ‘life situation,’ students apply knowledge gained in the classroom.”

These can be important experiential and visual tools for young learners and give “students vocabulary and skills needed,” Reaum said, to apply these lessons in the classroom and at home.

“They’re actually seeing some real-world situations and problems and how to solve them,” she added. “We’ve had really great success.”

Amanda Chapman, a sixth-grade teacher, said middle school students are typically unfamiliar with ideas of budgeting money and career professionalism.

But it’s not too many years down the road when some of these students will have their first paying jobs, perhaps at 15 or 16 years of age.

And it can help young students begin to develop the confidence they’ll need to succeed in the working world by placing them in leadership roles.

“It’s a little reality check for them at a younger age,” Chapman said.

Principal Misty Freeman said dates are already booked for next January for students to attend the Discovery Center.

For a young student like Martinez, who already reaped its rewards, advice comes easy for next year’s attendees.  

“I would tell them that they should have fun, but they should also get a learning experience from this,” she said.