The ninth grade is a make-or-break time for graduating from high school, according to a growing body of evidence. The transition through middle school and on to high school is so critical that a variety of programs have sprung up to support children at this vital time.
The New York Life Foundation and Virtual Enterprises, (VE) the educational non-profit focused on providing kids with authentic business experiences, are fully aware of how important middle school is for staying on-track. That’s why, from 2015 to this year, they have partnered on the Junior Ventures Career Academy Program (VE-JV), challenging students to collaborate with their class to launch and manage a business.
Laying the foundations for tomorrow’s entrepreneurs
The program is not only an opportunity for personal growth for each student, it’s also a life-changing experience at a hugely influential juncture in their lives.
“I was not 100% on board about starting VE. I love teaching math and was very content with my current program,” says Joanna Gillen VE-JV Coordinator and teacher. “It makes me laugh thinking about that now because I can’t imagine saying no to the opportunity VE provides. I realized how important a program like this is, especially for middle school students who are in such a delicate time of self-realization and personal development.”
“In VE-JV, you learn many skills, from communication to leadership to problem-solving. So I get to improve on these skills [and] maybe start a career path from there.” - Sara Vrainici, student participant.
By participating in every aspect of running a business—from marketing and sales to HR and finance to IT— students in the program learn professionalism, self-confidence, leadership skills, teamwork and how to think like an entrepreneur.
“When I first started the seventh-grade program, I was very shy, I was nervous, I didn't like talking to adults,” says student participant Sara Vrainici. “But when I started to practice more [and] my teacher motivated me to talk more, I became more confident in myself. I stopped being nervous, [and now] I'm able to go on interviews and speak on the spot and do these presentations.
“In VE-JV, you learn many skills, from communication to leadership to problem-solving. So I get to improve on these skills [and] maybe start a career path from there.”
The program aims to build awareness among the students about the variety of careers that are out there for them. All the while, they are building aptitude in decision-making, public speaking and financial literacy, and real technology skills like how to work on a spreadsheet or use different software. These experiences will help them whatever they choose to do.
“I will be using these skills in my everyday life,” says Sara. “For example, when I have a class project, I can use my public speaking skills to present in front of the class. Or I can use my graphic design skills to make a presentation for a project I’m working on.”
Preparing for the real world
It’s hugely important for students to connect the content of what they’re learning at school with real-world skills and real-world projects, showing them the value of their education. It’s also something of an eye-opener for their teachers.
“I learned how much I didn’t know about the capabilities of middle school students,” said Joanna Gillen.
“I have always loved middle school and felt that I had done a great job respecting my students and helping them succeed in math... but I realized that I wasn’t helping these children grow as people as much as I could have.
“Students grow the most because they are given the chance to find their interests and understand how they can actually apply these interests in the real world. They are then given the chance to explore these different interests and jobs in a low-risk environment. I believe that this is the one thing I would have benefited from as a student.”
An education for everyone
Not only does the program have a huge influence on the confidence and abilities of students, it also impacts the teachers who take part. Joanna Gillen says that taking a step out of her comfort zone taught her what her students were really capable of when they’re given the resources and the independence to work alone, even if letting go was sometimes hard to do.
“My first year of the program, I hovered over them and helped them way too much with their decisions and daily procedures,” she says. “As I grew more comfortable, and realized that the VE program guides them enough, I took a step back and watched as the students accomplished more when they were given the freedom to do so.
“It is scary to not know exactly what the plan is every day and to know that every student will be working on something different, but actually letting go and allowing the students the freedom to discover their own interests, talents, strengths and weaknesses has been the biggest reward of the program.”
Over the last four years, the VE JV program has grown from three pilot schools in New York to 40 middle schools across New York, Florida and Los Angeles.
Given the success of the preliminary run of the JV program, the New York Life Foundation has continued to support the program with a three-year grant of $750,000. VE expects to run the program in 50 schools serving a total of 9,000 students in the 2020-21 school year, inspiring another generation of children with the confidence to succeed, first in school and then in their future career.
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