At the new Junior Achievement Discovery Center of Greater Dalton, students learn numerous lessons, but perhaps none more valuable than the importance of teamwork to life success.

"The cooperation side is a real influence," said Dalton Middle School sixth-grader Jack Houston. "It's not just you, and you have to work with other people because you can't do anything on your own."

The discovery center is on the campus of Hammond Creek Middle School, which will open for students in grades six and seven for the 2021-22 academic year. Inside the discovery center, which officially opened in early March, middle school students experience storefronts that are prototypes of local businesses and meet volunteers who share their real-world knowledge and perspective.

"This is a really good hands-on learning experience for them, (especially because) so many (students) don't have much prior knowledge of money and how businesses work," said Catelynn Schroeder, a sixth-grade teacher at Dalton Middle School. "It's a piece of the real world, and it's a controlled (environment), so they can ask questions."

The center is "an amazing opportunity to learn about the real world," said Houston, who filled the position of mayor in JA BizTown, among other roles, when he visited March 16. Houston has designs on being an entrepreneur, so "it's interesting to experience the world I" hope to be in one day.

Houston's classmate, Andrea Najera, was pleased to inhabit the roles of vice mayor and CEO of the Great Dalton Chamber of Commerce, among others, because "I want to do something like that when I grow up," she said. "I'm interested in politics and leadership."

As sixth-graders, students focus on JA BizTown, where they're introduced to macroeconomics, the forces that power the economy, and their role in it. They also learn soft skills, such as landing employment, and discover employment opportunities available to them in their local area.

"It's fun to start a 'career,'" Najera said. "It just looks so cool in here."

Schools devote several lessons to Junior Achievement content before the students visit the center, and "they're excited to use what they've learned in the classroom," said Rhonda Hawkins, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Dalton Middle School. "They get to apply it, which makes it fun, and hopefully they'll remember the real-life experience for a long time."

Najera didn't realize "how clueless I was about so much of this" before she began the Junior Achievement curriculum and visited JA BizTown, she said with a chuckle. "I didn't know the difference between a debit card and a credit card, or the difference between gross pay and net pay."

At the discovery center, “this feels very real, because they’re not just learning from a textbook," according to Sarah Lippert, a senior marketing associate for Junior Achievement of Georgia. Students “learn things about life here we all had to learn through trial and error.”

While JA BizTown is emphasized with sixth-graders, students in grades seven and eight learn from JA Finance Park, an immersive life simulation where students make personal financial decisions based on their assigned socioeconomic situations. Various sectors are represented in the discovery center, from industry (Engineered Floors and Shaw Industries) to healthcare (Hamilton Health Care System) to automotive (Mercedes-Benz and Ford of Dalton) to education (Dalton State College and Georgia Northwestern Technical College).

Numerous Dalton Middle School sixth-graders dressed in business attire for their visit to the center March 16, including Houston and Najera.

"There are high standards here," Houston said. "I wanted to respect BizTown and represent my school."

At "our age, you don't get many opportunities to look sharp like this," Najera said. "It's fun to look in your closet (and/or) your mom's closet to find clothes and dress up."

The discovery center expects to host around 13,000 students from more than a dozen school systems in Northwest Georgia annually, according to Dixie H. Kinard, a member of the Northwest Georgia Junior Achievement Executive Advisory Board. This is the state’s fourth discovery center, joining centers in Atlanta, Cumming and Gwinnett, with a fifth slated to open next year in Savannah.

Because of travel time, Dalton students had limited opportunities at discovery centers previously, but "now we can get here quickly," since it's right across the street, Schroeder said. "Before, it was a two-hour bus ride."

This place "is amazing," Houston said. "I'm so thankful our community invested this much in our education."

Courtney Taylor, Blue Ridge School's media specialist, was among the volunteers March 16, and she was highly impressed with the center.

"I didn't know that much about (discovery centers previously), but this is awesome," Taylor said. "I think it's incredible for kids."

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