(Photo: Junior Achievement of Greater Boston)

Closing the opportunity gap for youth in the wider Boston area

Junior Achievement program teaches workplace skills, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship starting in middle school

For more than 100 years, Junior Achievement (JA) has been “dedicated to giving young people the knowledge and skills they need to own their economic success, plan for their futures, and make smart academic and economic choices.”

Active in all 50 states, JA has an annual reach of more than 3 million students through its after-school and in-school programs, guiding them in work readiness, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship.

Local volunteers power the nonprofit’s approach to the initiatives. The programming offered by Junior Achievement of Greater Boston has undergone a shift in recent years.

“We think part of what makes our strategy unique is that even though Junior Achievement nationally has been a K-12-focused organization, our chapter decided that we really wanted to shift towards middle school-to-career,” explains Radhames Nova, president and CEO of JA of Greater Boston.

Radhames Nova, president and CEO, Junior Achievement of Greater Boston

“Middle school students are more ready for what we do. They’re starting to think about what they want to be when they grow up. They start wanting to buy iPhone and expensive sneakers. Financial literacy and education are very important at that age.”

Nova further explains, “In 2019, we did a very specific strategic plan where we spoke to a number of stakeholders of Junior Achievement – from students to alumni to educators to the local business chambers, our board and funders – to really identify opportunities to significantly increase our impact in the region.”

“We realized that being a regional nonprofit, we couldn’t serve young people as well as we wanted it to if we were serving everybody. So, we identified nine communities, we call them impact communities, where we believe we can really move the needle in empowering young people to break the cycle of poverty and expose them to opportunities for the future.”

He continues, “Boston is the biggest, but if you look at all nine of them, they are communities where over 80% of the students are young people of color, where the poverty rate is almost double the state’s poverty rate, and where low-income students are, again, almost double the rate of the state. By focusing our resources on a smaller number of communities, we are hoping that we’re empowering those mostly young people of color to hopefully have a better shot at closing that wealth gap.”

Variety of JA Programming

“We mostly work through the school districts in the region where we want to work with the young people. I would say 90% of our curriculum in our programming will happen in school during school hours through the school districts,” says Nova.

“We’ve developed a strong partnership with the schools so that the young people will see our curriculum year over year. Junior Achievement’s curriculum is age appropriate. In the ideal situation, we are engaging with the school in a long-term partnership that allows us to see young people multiple times throughout their academic careers.”

Nova says students benefit – not only from the curriculum – but also from the introduction to professionals in the workforce. “A lot of our programming is taught by corporate volunteers. They’re meeting volunteers and mentors who represent different industries. So, they’re exposed to potential career pathways that they may not have thought of before.”

Sparking Career Exploration

JA Inspire affords eighth graders the opportunity to explore career options. “[The students] take three JA lessons that are really focused on self-exploration. ‘What do I like to do? What are my strengths? What are my interests? What are my aptitudes?’” explains Nova.

JA Inspire 2022 Highlight

In December 2022, Junior Achievement of Greater Boston hosted its inaugural JA Inspire at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston! JA Inspire is a hands-on career readiness program and exploration fair for 8th grade students throughout Boston and beyond.

Launched in the Boston area at the end of last year, Nova says, “[JA Inspire] culminates in a very interactive career exploration day. Twenty-five students from the eighth-grade class jumped on a school bus. When they arrived, they found 38 companies of different industries from finance to construction to health care. Delta Air Lines had a pilot, dressed in uniform, talking about how he became a pilot. There were health care companies teaching kids how they do hip replacements.”

“The idea is that exhibitors are not handing out flyers and just talking about their companies. They’re showing the students what they do in a fun, interactive, engaging way.” A total of 750 JA students attended the career exploration day.

JA Aspire (Photo: Junior Achievement of Greater Boston)

Funding is supporting JA of Greater Boston in its recent launch of 3DE Schools by Junior Achievement – at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester.

The high school instructional model – incubated eight years ago by Junior Achievement of Georgia in Atlanta – is described by Nova as, “Bringing the case methodology that’s used at the business school-level, the graduate-level to high school full-time by teaching high school students different competencies that we all need in life – whether it’s critical thinking or communications, cultural agility. They’re learning these critical skills through the lens of cases.”

He offers an example. “Delta Air Lines will work with 3DE schools. They will bring a case to the high school students where the students are helping solve a current challenge that Delta Air Lines is having as a company.”

“The students are learning by doing. It doesn’t replace their current curriculum. What it does is supplement it, and it makes it more relevant by exposing them to how their education translates into real world solutions – whether it’s math or English, writing out a report on how you’re going to solve that problem.”

Each year, ninth-grade students at Burke will begin learning through this instructional model –designed for the entirety of their high school careers.

Nova points out data from other 3DE schools indicates, “The students in 3DE schools are graduating high school at a 33.1% higher rate than the traditional high school. Absenteeism has gone down significantly because students become more engaged and they’re having a more relevant experience with their academics.”

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Real 3DE students share what to expect from your 3DE school, the four-year journey, and advice for success.

It’s Nova’s hope that students’ JA experiences will better prepare them for what comes after high school. “We see this idea of creating high-impact programming in middle school and high school to prepare these young people to be placed in their first career opportunity post-high school.”

“Some of them will not go to college or will go to a two-year college. Some will go to a four-year college. We have the network to be able to connect them with employers that are seeking well-prepared, talented, and diverse young people,” says Nova.

He continues, “We are currently piloting the JA Career Pathway for Alumni. We’ve been on our third summer. We ended up placing 14 alumni in paid internships in a very diverse group of companies.”

Among the companies – Accenture, Staples, Voya Financial, Moderna, and Mass Development, which is a local Massachusetts government organization.

Nova says, “We are seeing that there’s demand from the alumni and also demand from our partners. What we are starting to put in place is a more formal training process. We helped these alumni with group of trainings leading up to the internships so that they could be as prepared as possible to succeed.”

One JA Alum Says the Program Helped Her Land Her First Job

Gabriella Reyes learned about Junior Achievement when Nova paid a visit to the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence. “He had told us about the program, and I thought it’d be a really good idea because I knew I wanted to look into being a business major when I got into college. I felt like it would be a good opportunity to get that hands-on experience and hit the ground running.”

Gabriella Reyes, Lexington casualty analyst, AIG

Reyes adds, “On top of that, he told us we would have mentors from different corporate companies. I felt like that would be also a great opportunity for me to start building my network and maintaining my network.”

At the time, joining as a junior in high school, she says, “We would meet after school and develop our product. Our group developed bracelets. Our company was Solidarity, Inc. My friend and I sold the most bracelets. We knew it had to be bracelets because we told ourselves, ‘If we’re selling to high school students, we had to sell something affordable or we’re not going to make money.’”

Nova points out, “Entrepreneurship has been core to Junior Achievement. We want you to be entrepreneurial in your thinking, to be nimble, to be ready to take calculated risks, and to be ready to take life into your own hands. A lot of young people join us being very shy, and by the time they finish our curriculum and our programs, you can see that they think a lot higher of themselves and what they can accomplish.”

Reyes says she was keenly aware that her participation in JA would be a good experience for her. “Lawrence is an impoverished city, so it’s a low-income community with a lot of immigrants. I’m first-generation. My parents immigrated here.”

“Growing up in Lawrence, we didn’t have the same resources as other groups or other communities. I’ve always tried to take advantage of any resources that come my way, and I’ve always been extremely grateful to anybody and everybody that has helped pave a way throughout my path.”

She continues, “This was my opportunity to build genuine connections with things that I haven’t seen growing up or with people in careers that I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing growing up.”

Reyes makes the point numerous times that her JA mentors have been invaluable. “I stayed in contact with three of my mentors from JA. I was able to maintain a network that helped me get to where I am today.”

She gives a special shout-out to Chris Webster, a retired senior vice president with AIG – who suggested she apply for an AIG summer internship in Atlanta before her final year as a finance major at Barry University in Miami.

Webster, recalls Reyes, went above and beyond as her mentor. “I’m really grateful to him because he has always taken the time. He’s a true mentor. He always takes the time to tell me, ‘We can prep for the interview, I can ask you some questions. You tell me what questions you have. We can figure it out.’ He’s always been a good source of support.”

While in college, Reyes had additional internships at Accenture and Enterprise Holdings. Today, she is settled in Atlanta working as a Lexington casualty analyst for AIG.

She says, “Junior Achievement deserves its credit because they put a lot of their time and energy into the students.” Now that she works full-time, Reyes, again, acknowledges the mentors, “I’m like, ‘Wow, they have kids, they have all these things, and they just came to help us.’”

‘Try something new’

“I was playing basketball, but then I got hurt. That’s where I took that moment. I was like, ‘You know what? Let just try something new.’ I didn’t want to be at home bored. I just wanted to try something new,” says Nicole Riscanevo Gallego – now a high school senior – about joining Junior Achievement last year.

Nicole Riscanevo Gallego, senior, Chelsea Virtual Learning Academy

Gallego – who attends Chelsea Virtual Learning Academy – worked in a team to design a mobile app. The CGI I.T. Girl Challenge partners with schools and community organizations – in this case, with Junior Achievement of Greater Boston – challenging high school girls to develop an app which they then pitch to a panel of judges.

Gallego and her three teammates created a safety app that alerts designated contacts if users find themselves in precarious situations.

The experience was a boost for Gallego, “This program gave me some type of encouragement because now I can do stuff with confidence. Let’s say I make some mistakes, but I learn from those mistakes, then I keep going. That’s something I learned from CGI and JA.”

In addition to her participation in the app development challenge, Gallego attended a weeklong immersive learning opportunity – this past summer – at the National Flight Academy in Pensacola – thanks to a partnership between Delta Air Lines and JA of Greater Boston.

The program is designed for students in grades 7-12 and the session Gallego attended was Girls in Aviation Week.

“I met different people from different countries,” says Gallego. “One person that I met came from Nigeria – just to come to this program. I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s epic.’ There’s a lot of good people that I met. Outstanding people, especially the roommates that I had. They were very smart.”

Meg Maccini, principal, Chelsea Virtual Learning Academy

Meg Maccini, principal at Chelsea Virtual Learning Academy, says, “One of the great themes about this is really empowering young women and people who identify as women. One of the things that I think it really allowed is [Nikki’s] leadership. She’s very modest and wouldn’t necessarily talk about this. She’s a real leader. Uses her influence for good.”

Gallego who is currently dual enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College will complete a half dozen college courses by the time she graduates from high school. As far as the next chapter, Gallego would like to take acting classes.

Answer the Door When Opportunity Knocks

“I love Junior Achievement,” says Reyes. “I always tell my friends, ‘Let’s go volunteer at Junior Achievement’ because I feel the impact it had on myself, on my peers – to this day. It gave me a lot of confidence. I feel like I can talk to anybody in front of a room. I still get nervous – don’t get me wrong. But it’s still a bigger step than it would have been had I not done the program.”

“We always say to students, ‘Opportunity knocks softly and you have to answer the door,’” says Maccini. “Nikki answers every single door. She might not tell you that about herself, but JA has really provided a lot of doors for her to open.”

Like JA alum Reyes, Gallego says she is more confident after her JA participation, “There was stuff that I couldn’t do before because I would always doubt myself. I would be like, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do that.’ But then, I wanted to start trying something new and just stop doubting myself.”

She continues, “I would like to thank the people who gave me this opportunity. If I were to have never done this program, I feel like I wouldn’t have come out of my shell. Before I was stuck –where there was opportunity flying around me, I would just dodge it. This was a good way to experience stuff and to take this opportunity. Let’s see how it goes from there.”

Gallego notes her parents, who are originally from Colombia, are proud of her. She says her dad calls her “buena trabajadora” – good worker.