For students who are curious about a competition called JA Titan, Patrice Matamoros is ready to enlighten them.

“I would call it the only video game a parent would want you to play,” Matamoros said.

Actually, the program offered by Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania, the nonprofit for which Matamoros serves as president, qualifies more as a simulation. Participants have the opportunity to run their own virtual businesses, making decisions about the likes of pricing, production and marketing.

If that sounds like fun as well as educational, it’s by design.

“I think this is a fresh, new way to look at a competitive offering,” Matamoros said.

Her organization is taking a similar approach to numerous enrichment programs, including JA Titan, launched on a strategic platform called Achieving Together. The intent is to strengthen students’ connections to the business community as they plan for their futures.

“We’re in a key time in our society,” she said. “It’s pivotal. And Junior Achievement has been there for major other issues across the country.”

Circumstances surrounding COVID-19 have caused disruptions in the educational process to the point where 39% of teens feel they are behind because of the pandemic, according to the results of a Junior Achievement USA study. Of those, 37% feel they are behind permanently, and 91% say they need additional support this school year.

To help students throughout the region catch up, and to teach them career-related skills, Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania has taken a variety of initiatives.

In January 2020, JA BizTown opened at the organization’s headquarters in South Fayette Township, a 10,000-square-foot mini-city where students participate in daylong experiences running businesses and/or serving as elected officials. The first group to participate came from Claysville Elementary School in McGuffey School District.

Although BizTown closed at the outset of the pandemic, the program has continued on a virtual basis, and students are scheduled to return in person Dec. 1.

Scheduled for the spring is She Leads, She Learns, through which 50 young women will receive full scholarships to participate in a professional branding and leadership development training program called Intern to VP.

“It’s basically giving girls a 10-year head start in life,” Matamoros said, adding components include how to write résumés, interview for jobs, speak in public and develop an effective presence on social media. “It’s going to be a lot of basic information, but it’s information designed to really help the girls start thinking and working in more of a strategic way in terms of leadership.”

Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania also is conducting a search for its 18 Under Eighteen initiative, showcasing a dozen and a half students who are making positive impacts in their communities through their entrepreneurial spirit, leadership and service.

“We want to use this as an opportunity to give recognition to our kids who do well off the field as well as on the field,” said Matamoros, adding the program has the impetus of showcasing Western Pennsylvania as a prime region for young talent.

Other offerings include the Innovation Academy – “That’s like our junior ‘Shark Tank’” – and JA Careers in Skilled Trades, a pre-apprenticeship program in partnership with the PA Department of Labor, local businesses, trade schools, unions and educators, Matamoros said.

To help make programming accessible throughout a large geographic coverage area, Junior Achievement has put an emphasis on digital content available online.

“We are working with two best-in-class software companies that will help us build a learning management system,” said Matamoros, adding elements derived from curriculums and programs already have been developed. “Nothing is being reinvented. We’re utilizing the best of what we already have.”

Another area of emphasis is seeking partners in the community.

“By supporting Junior Achievement, you’re supporting equitable education. You’re supporting a digital curriculum that helps enrich the lives of children throughout Western Pennsylvania, and then helping connect those kids to skills,” Matamoros said. “We’re trying to set everybody up for success.”

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Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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