On a muggy July morning at Urban Academy Charter School in St. Paul, Minn., whoops and yips come from a collection of summer school kids clambering over playground equipment on the lawn. Dr. Mongsher Ly, superintendent and co-founder of the school, sits in his office as the laughter outside continues. He says Junior Achievement has benefitted kids just like those playing a few feet away since his school opened its doors in 2003.
Today, the role JA plays in Urban Academy has become even stronger with the help of volunteers and financial support from Securian, a financial services group located in downtown St. Paul. Ly says that JA and the dedicated volunteers from Securian who support the program have helped introduce his at-risk students to ideas about financial literacy, entrepreneurship and business that they might not otherwise receive.
The charter school predominantly serves a population of 320 kids in grades K-6 who are new immigrants and students of color, a group that may not traditionally understand how business impacts their lives. Ly notes the school’s “free- and reduced population,” which identifies kids who qualify for subsidized lunches, a traditional gauge of family poverty, “is at about 98 or 99 percent and our ESL [English as a Second Language] population is at almost 70 percent. We have quite a few Karen families [refugees from the Burma region], Hmong families, and a mixture of Latino and African-American families, as well. Karen students probably account for about 60 percent of our kids right now.”
Ly says the lessons that JA teaches students—particularly those who may never have had a family member hold a typical job in a conventional business setting—can’t be overstated. “JA comes in and works with our children across the board, and the opportunity they give our children is to open their eyes with regard to business,” Ly says. “We do the different JA programs in the classrooms and we also take our kids to JA BizTown and they love it! They’ll come to me and say, ‘Dr. Ly! I’m the bank manager!’ Or ‘I’m the radio host!’ Or they’re learning how to balance a checkbook. Our kids are learning if they study and work hard, these are the types of jobs they could be doing.”
As a Hmong-American immigrant himself (his family came to the U.S. in 1975), Ly intimately understands the challenges his students face. “The whole thing with me is that I’ve been there, done that and I understand it very well,” he says. “Being in those shoes growing up, I see where these children are at. I think for our kids, entrepreneurship, that’s all new to them, just the idea that, ‘Hey, I could actually start something myself!’ That part is fascinating to them. I think that can be one of the biggest pieces that can push and motivate our kids, as well.”
Ly notes that when volunteers come into the school setting, they often serve as role models, and have an impact on the kids they work with simply by being visible. “Our children come from low-income families, so they often don’t get the exposure to the variety of things that are out there,” Ly says. “And with Securian, culturally they’re a very diverse company, and the job positions [the volunteers hold] are very diverse, too. I think it’s so important, especially for our young ladies at the school, to see women in such high positions and to see, ‘This is what I can do, this is what’s available to me.’ It’s about the kids seeing, ‘If you stay on this track, these are some of the wonderful opportunities that available for you.’”
Ly also notes that the commitment to teaching JA programs from companies such as Securian is a gift that empowers both the children, and also provides benefits to the company and its employees, as well. “I think it’s just giving back to the children,” he says. “That’s always the biggest thing. [The Securian volunteers] really understand where our children come from, and they really want to be able to help and support them and to give them a vision that ‘Yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel.’ They understand there’s so much potential here if we just give them our time and build those relationships. And from the corporate perspective, I think it’s about Securian giving back to the community where it’s located. And for a very successful business like them, it’s about saying, ‘This is what we believe in. Our vision and mission is about community.’ That’s an investment, and when other people want to invest with them, they understand they’re actively involved with helping people.
“I can’t say thank you enough to both JA and Securian,” he adds. “They’re just wonderful people and you really don’t get this type of experience anywhere else, especially for our children.”