Washington Business Journal: How to Ignite a Financial Capability Movement (by Ed Grenier)

By Ed Grenier
President and CEO
Junior Achievement of Greater Washington
Washington Business Journal

For many of our region’s students, the ladder to the American Dream has become too steep to climb. Their ability to succeed is hampered by the gap between what’s taught in the classroom and skills they need to succeed in the modern economy. A new Champlain College study measuring how well U.S. high schools are providing personal finance education gave nearly one-quarter of states and the District a failing grade. 

Financial illiteracy plays a key role in a cycle of unemployment and poverty. The downward spiral begins in earnest for those who don’t graduate, as we have seen in the District and Prince George’s County, although strides are being made. Dropping out of school often involves a gradual process of disengagement. For students unable to make the connection between what they are learning in school every day and their finances and future success, the sense of importance and urgency just isn’t there.

We must show these young people the direct relevance of what they are learning to their future. We must show them the value of having a high school diploma and aspiring to a meaningful career—and, we must give them the skills to be financially capable. When students better understand the complexities of our economy and the challenging financial choices that lie ahead, they can make informed decisions about college, careers, and staying in school.

This week, Junior Achievement (JA), in partnership with Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) and signature sponsor Capital One, took a step toward giving students the tools to be prepared for success when we celebrated the grand opening of JA Finance Park® in Landover, the region’s second financial literacy supercenter. This partnership will serve every eighth grader in the County—over 9,000 students annually. Since the opening of the region’s first Finance Park in Fairfax County, JA has served more than 71,000 students through more than 1.6 million instructional hours.

Before students travel to JA Finance Park, they take part in a unique 14-lesson classroom curriculum taught by their teacher. The experience culminates at JA Finance Park, where they put their newly-learned skills to the test. The "mini-city" houses a variety of storefronts, correlating to the budget line items each student must manage during their visit. As they enter the doors of the park, these youth leave behind their lives as students and take on virtual personas with a career, credit score, debt, family, and financial obligations. On tablets, led by volunteer role models from their community, students budget for mortgages, transportation, childcare, and retirement, adjusting along the way for unexpected events.

Students emerge with an understanding of how expensive it can be to afford the life they envision. Most leave with a new appreciation for their parents and a renewed commitment to their own education. In fact, national evaluations of the program show that students who participated acquired financial literacy knowledge and were more positively disposed toward financial literacy. Students also demonstrated a positive change in attitude regarding education attainment, indicating their plans to pursue more education after graduation.

To change the trajectory of our students, we must change our approach and take learning beyond the classroom. JA looks forward to growing JA Finance Park across the region and is committed to developing a model that works for District students so that we can truly create a pipeline of prepared graduates who are equipped to lead this region far into the 21st century.

It’s time to transform JA’s pillar of financial literacy from one nonprofit’s mission into a major movement. In doing so, we’ll show our kids that their potential is limitless.


In 2018, Maryland will become home to two Junior Achievement Finance Parks once Montgomery County opens on the fourth floor of the new Thomas Edison High School of Technology building. The first JA Finance Park® opened in Fairfax, Virginia, in October, 2010. To date, more than 71,000 students have become JA Finance Park Graduates through more than 1.6 million instructional hours, 86 school visits from 9 school systems throughout the region. The partnership is supported by signature sponsor Capital One and several of our region’s leading companies and organizations. To learn more about Junior Achievement of Greater Washington’s work to inspire the next generation to navigate their path to the American Dream, and how you or your company can get involved, please visit www.myJA.org.