Atlanta businesses help prepare students with real-world skills and confidence through an innovative approach to high school

By: Steve Voorhees, CEO, WestRock. Originally published in Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Our world is faster, more connected and more complex than it’s ever been. Today’s students are part of the first digitally native generation and are poised to enter the most technology dependent economies to date. Businesses will rely on this generation to help them seamlessly transition through new technologies and needs – some of which have yet to be imagined. 

So, why are companies continually concerned about an ever-growing skills gap in the upcoming work force?

Because while we focus so much on technological advancements and its impacts, we begin to overlook the human element. The soft skills – effective communication, a solution-oriented mindset, collaboration – that are just as important than the technical ones. These are competencies businesses need individuals to obtain before they enter the workforce.

With 90 percent of American children in the public education system, it seems that’s exactly where the groundwork should begin. How can we support our schools to effectively provide students with the resources and opportunities to develop these skills so they are primed to excel in careers of today and tomorrow?

Across our country businesses are independently meeting to determine ways they can meaningfully engage in education. And, what I have discovered through WestRock’s most recent involvement in this space, is that schools and school systems are having the same conversations.

As CEO of a Fortune 500 company with strong ties to Atlanta, as well as my longtime commitment to help students  succeed in a global economy, I am confident that a solution is on the horizon and that it’s is being incubated right here in Atlanta.

Developed as joint ventures with school systems, and strategic partnerships with the business community, JA Academy  has the potential to systematically transform high school education. This approach integrates real-world business connectivity into the everyday learning experience to create a highly engaging and relevant learning environment.

Transformation has already begun within various schools. Since 2015, the inaugural JA Academy class of students has demonstrated a dramatic improvement in engagement and, as a result, elevated academic outcomes.

The students at JA Academy are building higher-order transferable skills like communication, collaboration and creativity. The unique JA Academy approach provides students opportunities to discover their strengths and passions, while exploring future possibilities. This was evident when more than 100 freshmen from JA Academy at Norcross High School visited WestRock to present their prospective solutions around communication, culture and employee engagement.

The innovative approach being practiced at the JA Academy can transform our schools and empower students to graduate as the most knowledgeable, skilled and confident generation to enter the workforce.

The first JA Academy class will graduate from Banneker High School in 2019. They will be the first cohort of students with four years of real-world experiences, business backgrounds and an unstoppable drive for success that will have prepared them to take on all the challenges of today’s economy.

The second JA Academy at Norcross High School will graduate its first class in 2020, and the most recent location, JA Academy at Douglass High School will graduate in 2021. Implementation plans to expand the footprint to provide many more graduates from JA Academies will follow closely behind.

We all know that Atlanta is unique – our community is marked by our ability to cross sectors, come together and unite efforts for the common good. And because of what’s taking place right now at the JA Academy, I believe Atlanta will soon have another title to be proud of: The hub for innovation in education. 

ROTARY CLUB OF GWINNETT COUNTY HELPS PREPARE STUDENTS FOR FUTURE SUCCESS

ATLANTA, GA - The Rotary Club of Gwinnett County’s Charitable Giving Committee and Board of Directors awarded Junior Achievement (JA) of Georgia a grant in the amount of $500 to be used to continue JA of Georgia’s efforts to provide a dynamic learning experience designed to enhance students’ financial literacy and build skills for personal and professional success.

The award will be used specifically to continue funding for the JA Discovery Center at Gwinnett – an immersive facility that provides Gwinnett County Public School 6th and 8th graders the opportunity to experience their futures first hand.

The facility houses two separate experiential learning spaces: JA BizTown presented by Cisco and JA Finance Park presented by Assurant. Both experiences begin with in-class curriculum, and culminate with a visit to the JA Discovery Center at Gwinnett.

JA BizTown provides students the opportunity to experience their futures first hand by allowing 6th grade students to interact within a simulated economy and take on the challenge of fueling a business. The students not only discover the intricacies of being a professional and member of the community, but also the abundance of opportunities available within their city.

At JA Finance Park, 8th grade students participate in an immersive simulation that enables them to develop skills to successfully navigate today’s complex economic environment and discover how decisions today can impact tomorrow.

“Thanks to grants like these, and partnerships with Gwinnett County Public Schools and the local business community, we are able to give students an authentic and relevant experience that leaves a lasting and measurable impact,” said Juan McGruder, Senior Vice President & CDO, JA of Georgia. “Together we are shaping the next generation into individuals who are equipped to lead our community and play an integral role in our economy.”

The JA Discovery Center at Gwinnett opened in August 2015 and serves more than 25,000 middle school students a year from Gwinnett County Public Schools. It is the second JA Discovery Center in the state, bringing the immersive facilities’ annual impact to more than 60 percent of metro Atlanta middle school students.

AT&T AND JA OF GEORGIA COLLABORATE TO BRING LEARNING BEYOND THE CLASSROOM WALLS

Junior Achievement (JA) of Georgia is bringing important career readiness experiences to students in metro Atlanta as part of AT&T’s signature education initiative AT&T Aspire. More than 50 students from Cedar Grove High School were assigned an AT&T mentor through the JA Job Shadow™ program, which gives students a firsthand glimpse into a professional career.

JA Job Shadow™ begins in the classroom with three sessions to help students learn more about careers, including how to identify a career based on interests, steps in researching potential jobs and developing job-hunting skills like networking and interviewing. The students then will visit an AT&T corporate office to shadow an employee for half a day to see first-hand how education translates to a satisfying and successful career.  

“These type of real-world experiences are the kind that can ignite a passion within a student,” said Jack Harris, President and CEO of JA of Georgia. “Through the AT&T Aspire program, we are giving students the opportunity to be exposed to different paths and to help them realize the endless careers available in their own community.”

During the 2015-2016 school year Junior Achievement and AT&T seek to impact more than 7,000 students nationwide. This could not be achieved without the support of AT&T mentors that are a part of the company’s Aspire Mentoring Academy program. Through Aspire Mentoring Academy, AT&T employees connect with students to help them discover their passions and potential. Aspire Mentoring Academy is part of AT&T Aspire, a signature initiative to promote student success in school and beyond.

“This was my first time mentoring JA students," said Bryan Bigelow, AT&T Employee. "The time spent was very rewarding to not only myself, but as well as the students. It was a pleasure getting to know the students and their aspirations and goals. I looking to doing this again.” 

The collaboration between JA of Georgia and AT&T is a continuation of their joint commitment to providing authentic and relevant experiences that help young people in the community be in control of their future success.

See what students and AT&T mentors who have completed JA Job Shadow™ have to say about the program: http://youtu.be/L3NWazI2_UM.   

About Philanthropy & Social Innovation at AT&T

AT&T Inc. is committed to advancing education, strengthening communities and improving lives. Through its community initiatives, AT&T has a long history of investing in projects that create learning opportunities; promote academic and economic achievement; or address community needs. In 2014, nearly $127 million was contributed or directed through corporate-, employee-, social investment- and AT&T Foundation-giving programs. AT&T Aspire is AT&T’s signature education initiative that drives innovation in education by bringing diverse resources to bear on the issue including funding, technology, employee volunteerism, and mentoring.

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING COMES TO NORTH GEORGIA

In 1987 Mike Cottrell bought hisfather’s small manufacturing business with a goal to become the best company in his industry and give back every step of the way. Today, Cottrell Incorporated is the leader in manufacturing automobile haulers in North America, and Mike and Lynn Cottrell are devoted members of north Georgia’s communities.

Cottrell grew up in Pennsylvania during a time when manufacturing fueled the economy. “Of course I knew about manufacturing, but it was not until I got involved with Junior Achievement that I discovered the various plants and career opportunities available,” said Cottrell. “It was an eye-opening experience for me and set the course for my future.”

Early on Cottrell set the vision for his company to become the premier manufacturer and employer in the industry. His leadership focused around the belief that in order to grow you must be the best in everything. “When you create the best place to work you attract and retain the top talent, which in turn develops the best product. Yes, I cast the vision, but the people made it happened. They are the ones who brought the vision to life, and for that I am forever thankful.”

Throughout Cottrell’s career he was dedicated to his commitment to give back. As his company grew so did the impact of his investment. From supporting efforts to fuel tourism to community activism, the Cottrells have remained unwavering supporters of north Georgia. “Lynn and I love this community, and are fortunate that Cottrell Inc. has provided us with the ability to support it, especially around education.”

Mike and Lynn Cottrell have been longtime supporters of University of North Georgia. Their transformational gifts have helped spur the growth of the business school and provided scholarships for students in need. In January 2017, it was announced that the Cottrells will continue their legacy of fueling the futures of young people by becoming the lead investors in the first ever JA Discovery Center located outside of metro Atlanta. “I’m a business person and I think one of the keys to being successful is education, and we must provide opportunities for all students.”

The Mike & Lynn Cottrell JA Discovery Center of North Georgia will open in August 2018 and serve middle school students throughout the region. This will be the third JA Discovery Center in Georgia and will be located on the grounds of the Alliance Academy for Innovation of Cumming and Forsyth. The Center will house JA BizTown and JA Finance Park, immersive simulations where students explore industries and careers, and acquire foundational knowledge for financial well-being.

“Deciding on your career is a major decision in life. Children deserve the opportunity to be exposed to many opportunities.”

“I’ve spent my entire life in manufacturing and I credit a major component of that to Junior Achievement. I’ve lived a life I love and I am thrilled by the possibility of inspiring thousands of children to do the same.”