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West Elementary 5th-graders go to tiny town, glean practical lessons in economics and life

Populated by 126 West Elementary School students, the Bobby Crockett Towne Square hums like a giant beehive, as the youngsters, most of them 11 years of age, go about the business of doing business.

Over at the restaurant, where the popcorn machine is broken, chief executive officer Zoe Vasofsky keeps a wary eye on her hustling employees and the line of anxious customers.

"We're selling lemonade, flower water and water," she says of the limited menu.

As the kids pay for their beverages with paper money, Vasofsky also keeps tabs on her computer. Her goal today? "Making sure we pay for the rent," she stresses.

The best part of running the business? "Signing checks," she said, flashing a grin.

Welcome to BizTown, Junior Achievement of Middle Tennessee's amazing indoor village where more than 10,500 fifth-graders have received a crash course in economics this year. Wilson County students from Stoner Creek, Mt. Juliet Christian and Friendship Christian schools also have claimed temporary citizenship here over recent months.

For a half day or so, the youngsters work assigned jobs, get paid, write checks and spend their hard-earned cash.

The businesses making up BizTown include a bank, city hall, UPS store, a newspaper office, NovaCopy, a radio station, a professional office, restaurant, Journeys, Dollar General, Mars Petcare Adoption Center, Memorial Foundation Philanthropy Center, a TV station and a wellness center.

Kevin White, CEO of the philanthropy center, writes a check for the first time and hands it to bank teller Nathan Cochran.

"I just made a withdrawal of three dollars," said White.

Banker Cochran tells him, "You can't do more than that."

White asks, "What if I need $5?"

"I don't know," answered Cochran.

Welcome to mom and dad's world, kids.

Fifth-grade teacher Kathie Prybilla, who serves as West Elementary School's BizTown coordinator, says, "A lot of the students don't have any idea of how this works. It gives them a picture of having a job. It's a great learning experience. It's like they're running their own little town.

"They set prices for items they sell in their businesses. They learn if they price too high, nobody's gonna buy it. It teaches the idea of how the economy works. Every business has a parent in it to monitor, but we tell them, 'Let the kids makes mistakes. Let them learn from that.'"

This is West Elementary's seventh year to venture to BizTown, located near 100 Oaks Mall in Nashville. Accompanying the lads and lasses are 18 parent volunteers and the other fifth-grade teachers: Cari Ambruster, Dawn Crumpton, Stacie Kerney and Stephanie Blankenship.

Prybilla said that the students prepare about a month and a half before their day trip to BizTown. Each BizTown businesses employs a chief executive officer, a chief financial officer and two to five other positions. Each child applies for three jobs, and the teachers evaluate their applications and make the assignments.

Ahead of time, the students also elect a mayor, prepare letters, create ads for their businesses and learn to balance a checkbook.

"They've seen their parents write in their checkbooks but have no idea of how it works. So they learn how to write a check and write it down in their checkbook. They have learned how to balance a checkbook. When they get to Biztown, they'll have a job and get a paycheck, and they have to deposit it into the bank at Biztown. They must fill out a deposit slip and write it into their checkbook, and then they can go shopping, Every time they buy something, they must write it down," said Prybilla.

"It kind of teaches them, 'This is what your parents do every day' and gives them a greater appreciation for what their parents do."

Wearing yellow plastic hard hats, Ethan Cardwell and Elijah Lowry labor as electric meter readers.

Said Cardwell, "I've read about 13 meters. It's kind of hard, kind of easy."

His partner Lowry said, "I like giving bills."

The meter readers make $7.84 for their day of work. The bills they write to the electricity consumers are for $3.

Kylie Reynolds, CEO at the Pet Adoption Center, described her store, saying, "We sell pets, of course. We also sell other items like stamps, shirts, bracelets and food scoops."

She and her staff found homes for eight dogs and cats (stuffed toys) at a fee of $6.75 each.

Across the way at NovaCopy, David Vinson is bent over a machine stamping pinback buttons.

"We've made about 15 different buttons," said Vinson, as he shows examples that carry funny sayings or show support for the Tennessee Titans and Nashville Predators.

The buttons sell for $3.75, while Vinson earned $9.34 and spent $5 of that for a soft plastic guitar and $3.75 for a button. That leaves him 59 cents in his bank account.

Junior Achievement's BizTown has been operating in Nashville since 2002 noted Rachel Dyer, director of programs. This year they played host to students from 81 schools in seven or eight Middle Tennessee counties. Every Williamson County fifth-grader attended.

The program costs half a million dollars a year.

"The schools do pay fees, $20 per student," said Dyer. "The school fees cover 25 to 30 percent of the costs. We offer scholarships and gave about 20 grand in scholarships this year.

"The thing that I love is that students are always engaged with this program and that it is so fresh to them. They are amazed that there is a real town that they are going to get to work at.

"The trades that they do between their business plus their own personal spending is what creates the economy, and they see how our local economy works, and what it takes to run a business, and how competition works, and how your prices bring in money for your business, and how they cover salaries for that. So they learn a lot. You see them do critical thinking, problem solving--what they've learned in social studies--to see how that feels and works."

West Elementary School secretary Jennifer Haynes had three of her sons experience Biztown.

"They enjoyed every minute of it," she recalled. "They learned how to do checkbooks, learned their jobs. One of my sons worked in the deejay booth at the radio station. It's just like a little city, and it was so much fun even for a parent to come in. The kids are given money and must spend it during the day. It's a cool experience."

Lily Pennington's job title was JAB-TV producer. The best part of her assignment, she said was "making the commercials, and we get to interview people."

As for what she learned from the gig, she added, "You have to listen to your co-workers' ideas, even though you may agree or disagree with what they have to say."

Dale Mueller served as editor of the "Busy BizTown News" newspaper and said the best part was "organizing the paper and getting it together."

It took his staff of 12 journalists about an hour to publish a six-page edition (they did work on some of the stories ahead of time), which they peddled for $2 a copy

Mykaila Armstrong was one of six nurses who treated 14 patients at the wellness clinic. She reported, "We weigh patients and make sure they are real healthy. We have health insurance. It's free."

The funnest part of her workday? "Getting to go on break."

Meanwhile at the radio station, deejay Johnny Pfefferle was having a ball.

"I requested the job, and I got it. I've been on the air for 30 or 45 minutes," said Pfefferle. "I'm doing the music and playing the request songs: "You Are the One" and "Good Day Sunshine."

Addie Savley, the 11-year-old mayor of BizTown, sits behind her desk at city hall. She described her role as "being in charge."

The most fun part? The elected official repeated, "Being in charge. I am a little bit controlling." The hardest part of being mayor? "Doing all the crazy paperwork. I've signed at least 15 papers today."

Teacher Prybilla said she and her peers hope the experience teaches the children "what it means to be a productive citizen of a community. Everybody has to contribute.

"If you want things, you have to get a job to get them. Learning how that whole process works. For some of them, it finally clicks, 'Oh, if I don't have more money then I can't get that.'"

Marla Cochran, a volunteer mom, described the day at BizTown, saying, "I think it is very helpful for them to learn about the real world. The money is easy for them right now, but the reality is you have to work hard for your money."

West Elementary School fifth-grader Ella Weist does a bit of direct marketing in front of Journeys as she invites BizTown shoppers to purchase items inside. In the background, some of her peers wait in line as they prepare to write checks and withdraw cash at First Tennessee Bank. More than 10,000 Middle Tennessee fifth-graders have participated in Junior Achievement’s BizTown this year including other Wilson County students from Stoner Creek, Mt. Juliet Christian and Friendship Christian elementary schools. KEN BECK
Editor Dale Mueller holds up a copy of “Busy BizTown News” fresh off the press.
UPS delivery men for the day were R.J. Esslinger, right, and Clayton Purman.
Journeys employee Eligia Williams tempts shopper to purchase stickers, key chains and backpacks in the Biztown store. “Sales are going good,” he said.
Kevin White, right, cashes a check to receive some cash from bank teller Nathan Cochran. It was the first time for White to write a check in a bank as he gained practical experience working at BizTown. KEN BECK
BizTown TV camera operator Smith Carter tapes an interview as host Nevaeh Neal, left, chats with attorney Haidyn Hillman. KEN BECK
Electric meter readers Ethan Cardwell, left, and Elijah Lowry earned $7.84 for their day of labor at BizTown. KEN BECK
BizTown Mayor Addie Savley was elected to her position last month by her fellow West Elementary School fifth-graders. The hardest part of her task, she says was “doing all the crazy paperwork.” KEN BECK
Kylie Reynolds, CEO of Pet Adoption Center, reported that her staff adopted out eight dogs and cats during their stint at BizTown. The critters were stuffed animals.
NovaCopy employees, from left, Merna Meshreky, Destiny Henley and David Vinson manufacture colorful buttons.
From left, Tayler Washburn, Michael Sollmann and Christian Warren stay busy operating the Dollar General at BizTown.
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BizTown, education, Junior Achievement of Middle Tennessee, Ken Beck, West Elementary School
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