Subscribe for 99¢

"I'm learning it's not easy being a grown up," admitted Lydia France, 10.

Lydia was "working" as a sales associate Friday (Oct. 14) morning at a print shop in Chesterfield Valley.

"It's not easy getting a debit card and paying bills," she said during a brief break.

She was learning that lesson in Real World 101 with 86 other fifth-graders from Rockwood School District's Geggie Elementary School at the Donald O. Schnuck "JA BizTown."

The kid-sized city, with its own city hall and 17 businesses of all kinds, is the culminating exercise in a fifth-grade economics education course provided by the Junior Achievement of Greater St. Louis' Dennis & Judy Jones Free Enterprise Center in Chesterfield.

Kids learn work-readiness, money management, consumer and other skills by becoming economically literate.

"The program started with our kids going through a nearly seven-week economics course during social studies hour," said Mary Peppers, who teaches fifth grade with Tiffany Hutchinson and Kerri Schiavone. "The kids learn how to write a check, how to use debit and credit cards, how to pay yourself first, and so on."

Students then fill out applications for various jobs in BizTown companies they'd like to work for.

Teachers select employees for various jobs based on the kids' applications and abilities, such as math prowess, Hutchinson said. Kids even had to dress for their jobs, wearing a suit and tie in a financial office or jeans on a construction site.

The entire class then travels to the Free Enterprise Center to operate the JA BizTown.

Each company in BizTown is set up in a storefront, sponsored by real-life corporate sponsors like the Smokehouse Market, MasterCard Worldwide, Wells Fargo Advisors, Children's Hospital or Build-A-Bear Workshop.

Children spend more than four hours at the town applying lessons learned in the classroom to their jobs and shopping within JA BizTown, said Jenny Eickhorst, director of JA Capstone programs, which include JA BizTown.

The kids, assuming the roles of employees and shoppers, work, get paychecks, open bank accounts, deposit their checks, choose how to spend their income through cash, check or — thanks to MasterCard — debit cards at businesses where they can purchase real products.

The kids even vote, electing a mayor, paying taxes and engaging in philanthropy.

This is Geggie's sixth year participating, Peppers said.

"A lot of our kids already have savings accounts," she said. "I've even had conversations with them about the national debt. This course opens the door to economic sense for children, which is important, especially in this economy."

The Geggie students appreciate the responsibility and the chance to make decisions.

"You definitely learn how to handle problems," said Catie George, 10, working as a realtor.

Annie Grimshaw, 10, was on the job as technical director of the BizTown version of KPLR TV.

"You have to write a lot of checks if you buy a lot of stuff, and it's hard to learn to work the more technical stuff at this job," she said.

Chase Baker, 11, was CEO of KJAR radio station.

"It's good to learn how to live when you get older," he said.

One of the toughest jobs faced Mayor Lucy Trask, who wore a jaunty top hat to mark her electoral post.

"I have to help everybody in the city and I have to sign a lot of things," she said. "It's fun, but hard dealing with a big clutter of things. But you also get to experience in what it's like to be important."

Parents and teachers, trained by JA prior to the visit, also serve as consultants for the students at BizTown.

Heather Koenig, mother of fifth-grader Nate, called JA BizTown "awesome."

"Nate's learning how to communicate and reason with others, just like he needs to do in real life," said Koenig, who serves as a consultant. "The time management he's learning is huge. He's deciding what to purchase with his paycheck. He first bought a cookie and a soda."

Peppers said Geggie emphasizes to fifth-graders the need to be respectful, responsible and a role model.

"Students now understand why we expect those three things," she said. "Here, they're getting everyday skills for everyday life."