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Helping Troubled Youth Build a Positive Future, Paul Rosenthal Named JA’s 2020 Educator of the Year

TIAA

JA-Rocky Mountain’s 2020 Educator of the Year is presented by TIAA.

Junior Achievement-Rocky Mountain is proud to name Paul Rosenthal as its 2020 JA Educator of the Year, presented by TIAA. A social studies, English, and special education teacher at Ridge View Academy in southeast Aurora, Paul works hard to inspire at-risk youth every day.

Ridge View is an accredited, alternative education charter school at a correctional facility, serving youth referred by the Colorado Division of Youth Services who have committed a crime, as well as youth from the Colorado Department of Human Services, many of whom have bounced between foster homes, are runaways, or are homeless.  Paul describes how “a number of them have experienced severe trauma and have been addicted to drugs.”  The school’s goal is to help these troubled young people make positive, lasting changes in their lives. 

“Almost all of them are far behind academically. They struggle with math, reading, and writing because they missed so much by skipping school, dropping out, or getting expelled, and we have to bring them up to speed the best we can,” Paul says.  “So, yeah, we have to be creative in class or they’ll fall asleep.”

Each student is unique in what motivates them, whether it’s to return home, gain a vocational job, go to college or trade school, or pursue a creative endeavor.

“You just never know what will engage that student, maybe it’s academic, maybe it’s vocational, maybe it’s sports, and all of a sudden they realize ‘maybe the life I was leading was not so great, maybe I want to do something different, and this is giving me an opportunity,’” Paul explains.

Paul began pursuing a career in teaching while in college, and tried student teaching for a few months. At first it didn’t seem like a good fit for him. “I don’t think I really had the self-confidence or understood how teaching works,” he says.

Fast forward fifteen years, Paul was working for a nonprofit focused on juvenile justice reform. That’s when he was first introduced to Ridge View Academy and was impressed with their well-rounded offerings. Fate would bring him to the school as a substitute teacher in 2009, and he decided to get his teaching credentials and become a regular full-time teacher shortly after.

“I guess you could say I fell into teaching,” he laughs.

Paul has been teaching JA Economics lessons for the past six years. JA’s model works well for the youth he serves because of its practical nature. But Paul also presents topics using real-world scenarios, such as how the supply and demand for oil affects prices of consumer goods like groceries.

“They need a hands-on exercise, a real-world example. That gets them to intuitively understand it.”

Each year, Paul also brings students to the JA Stock Market Challenge, an immersive event that simulates the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, in which students compete in teams to build the largest stock portfolio. His students love the experience, not just for the competition, but also because it gives them an opportunity to use what they’ve learned off-site and interact with their peers.

“They came in fifth place last year, and they were just over the moon. These kids started off with no understanding of economics, with just a month or so preparation for the Challenge.”

Many of his students are interested in running their own businesses one day, so Paul also teaches JA entrepreneurial concepts, and he has his students craft their own business plans including their company structure, marketing, where the business will be located, revenue and expenses, how they will raise their initial capital, and more.  By the end of the exercise, the students realize how difficult it is to start up and run a business.  “Not exactly what they thought from seeing social media,” he quips.

Ultimately, each student presents and defends their business plan to the rest of the class, and students are graded by their peers.  “The students ask really good questions of the presenters. Oftentimes, they’re more critical than I am,” Paul says. “Some of them take their business plan with them when they leave because they say I want to do this someday.” 

“These topics are so important to these students’ lives, now more than ever, with the complexity of our financial world. They need this, this is practical, and that’s our challenge every day as teachers is to make sure they learn about how personal finance, business, and the economy in general affects them. If they don’t, it can set them back in their lives, it can deny them opportunities to purchase a home, gather wealth, or send them or their kids to college, go to Disneyland, do all the things a successful adult can do because they learned early on the concepts to succeed in life financially.”

Paul wants to not only accept for himself the honor of JA Educator of the Year, but shares the credit with his students, fellow teachers at Ridge View, Junior Achievement, and all the educators of Economics out there.  “Good job, everybody!”

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