Junior Achievement’s new leader has ambitious plans

REGION – Leland Michaels has been busy meeting people and shaking hands over the last few months. Not only is he a new face in town, he's also trying to raise the profile of the program he now leads.

Michaels, 28, is the new district manager for Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes: Northwestern Service Office. Former district manager Christie Powers left for a new job opportunity.

Junior Achievement (JA) is a worldwide organization working to equip students with financial and business "smarts" by connecting the business community with the classroom. The Traverse City-based office runs school programs in nine counties across the region, and last year served 5,087 students in kindergarten through 12th grade thanks to a volunteer crew of area business professionals.

In the three months Michaels has been at the helm, he's been focused on telling JA's story. Some people, he said, didn't realize there even was JA programming in the area. Some people weren't familiar with JA at all, he added. As he puts names to faces and gets to know his business community-one he describes as amazing and very giving-he would like to find ways to further tap into the resources he's already found and others he's still learning about.

"The business community has an interest in investing in the success of these students, as future employers and employees," Michaels said.

Right now, the area's JA program is reaching 15 percent of students, Michaels said, which is fairly typical of programs across the country. He would like to grow the program's reach by five percent every year.

"I think that's a sustainable, reachable goal," said Michaels.

Describing some of the programming in schools as "scattered," he also would like to create more sustainable programs (i.e. at every elementary grade level).

JA programming is funded primarily through corporate sponsors, foundations, service clubs and individuals. Michaels said programs are not running in some schools because of lack of funding, not volunteers-although wherever new programming goes, volunteers must follow.

The JA curriculum aligns with state content standards in math, social studies and language arts. In second grade, for example, students learn the difference between "a need" and "a want" as an introduction to economic responsibility. Michaels said the program averages 200 volunteers per school year and many of those individuals do it year after year.

The 'Company Program'

One such individual is Kevin Byrne, who has been a JA volunteer instructor at St. Francis for more than 10 years.

Byrne, a financial advisor for First Asset Financial in Traverse City, teaches JA's Company Program in which a class of high school students become entrepreneurs and experience the entire life cycle of a business in one semester, from conceptualizing and launching a company, electing officers, selling stock, marketing and selling a product, maintaining financial records, paying employees and stockholders (also giving 10 percent of profits to a local charity), and finally liquidating the company.

This year's class is selling coffee and mugs. At the end of November, the class was heavy into the selling phase, evaluating sales goals, assessing inventory needs for upcoming events and brainstorming other sales outlets.

Byrne posed questions for the class to consider and offered guidance about how to handle certain selling opportunities.

"My main responsibility is to keep them from making a mistake," he said.

'Grad' joins JA again

Bonnie Alfonso was a senior at St. Francis in the early '80s when JA first came to Traverse City. She joined the program, even though she wasn't particularly interested in business at the time. She ended up president of the company she and her classmates created that sold wooden desk plaques imprinted with a person's name or title for $8 each. She sold her first one to her father.

She also bought one for herself that sits on her desk today. That desk is at Alfie Embroidery, a Traverse City company Alfonso started with some help from her brother and dad in 1990. The company imprints names, logos, images (or anything you want, really) on hats, t-shirts, and the like.

Alfonso, who now sits on the local JA board of directors, said she didn't realize the impact of her JA experience until she was preparing a presentation for the JA board, noting how that company she led in high school parallels what she's doing now. "It was really cool when I had that revelation," she said.

Alfonso would like to get other area business professionals who are JA "grads" involved and working to give more students the experience she had.

"My objective is to help bring the program where it's not available," she said. "I wish I'd had it for more than one year. It's a significant education that will help them throughout their lives."

To find out how to get involved or volunteer, call Leland Michaels at 922-6330.