'JA BizTown' gives Gilman students an education in business world

The mayor of "JA BizTown" worked hard for the money Friday — all $18 of it.

His pay for the day, two paychecks of $9 each, was play money that he could spend only in BizTown.

But Mayor Essex Thayer, 11, cared more about signing checks than receiving them. Wearing a red, white and blue hat, which made him look like Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat, the Homeland boy sat studiously at his desk in City Hall.

"I have to run the town, making sure all the wheels are turning correctly," Essex said.

He signed checks to the local post office, an investment center, a car company and a cafe — for professional services rendered, he said.

Essex was among 53 Gilman School fifth-graders who spent the day at BizTown, a 10,000-square-foot mock city located in a converted office suite at 10711 Red Run Boulevard, in Owings Mills.

BizTown is run by Junior Achievement of Central Maryland and is designed to educate elementary school students in Baltimore about business and how the nation's free enterprise system works.

This year, 90 public and private schools have signed up to send their students to BizTown. Hampden Elementary/Middle students are scheduled to go Nov. 21.

The city has a representative sampling of sponsoring businesses one would find in a real city, including Bank of America.

Other BizTown sponsors include Toyota Financial Services, Northrop Grumman, CareFirst, the University of Phoenix and Baltimore Business Journal. All had their signs and logos outside their spaces. There was a mock TV and radio station, too, as well as a cafe.

Sponsors pay Junior Achievement a fee, and so do most schools, $30 per student, although scholarships are available, said Kim Fabian, Junior Achievement senior vice president.

Students prepare for their BizTown visits by taking 19 classes in their schools and assigning fellow students administrative jobs at each of the BizTown businesses.

Essex ran for mayor in a crowded field.

The goal is to prepare the students for a day at BizTown.

"This is the culmination of (classroom) experience," Fabian said. "We think that experiential learning is always more powerful."

At BizTown, students learn about sales, budgeting, different careers, the rigors of working for a living and the importance of getting a college degree.

"They can wrap their heads around being at work all day," Fabian said.

They also learn the nuances of saving money and getting deals and discounts. If they spend some of their paychecks to enroll at the University of Phoenix, they get raises because they earned a degree.

Gilman students made first, second and third choices of where they wanted to work in BizTown.

"I try to place them in the right shop with the right chemistry," said John Xanders, Gilman's fifth-grade homeroom teacher. "Then, they're happy when they get here."

Henry Peters, 10, of Guilford, was an ad executive for the radio station, 24.7JA.

"He's doing really well. He's enjoying the experience," said his mother, Natalie, as Henry ate a sandwich in the cafe on his lunch break.

"I've sold, like, four ads," Henry said between bites.

"I have to deposit the checks and help the CFO and the tellers if they need it," said Bank of America savings officer Jack Witherspoon, 10, of Roland Park.

"He's in heaven," said Megan Auvil, of Timonium, whose son, car aficionado Coyle Saunders, 11, was chief executive officer of Toyota Financial Services.

In addition to his other mayoral duties, Essex signed certificates of appreciation to parent volunteers at BizTown. And, he collected funds to donate to relief efforts in the wake of superstorm Sandy.

Essex said he was trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, Jonathan Thayer, Constellation Energy's chief financial officer.

"I want to be like him," Essex said. "I'm a little bit tired, but it's worth it."

"I think he realizes that being mayor is a lot more work than he thought," said his grandmother, Diane Essex, visiting from New Hampshire and spending the day as an assistant in City Hall.

Being related to the mayor "feels pretty special," she said.

The students acted professionally throughout the day, except for one spontaneous, uninhibited moment in the middle of BizTown, where they gathered with one collective consciousness.

Then, they danced like chickens.

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