Innovator in Action – Toni Schlieper and Her Journey to JA Strategic Director of Education
Author: Beck Harhai
Published: Thursday, 03 Aug 2023
Image caption: Toni Schlieper poses in JA BizTown®
Toni Schlieper’s career has been marked by risk, innovation and, most notably, creativity. From tackling various diverse roles to spearheading new education initiatives, she has never backed away from an opportunity to turn an idea on its head to create a new, better future for students.
In fact, it’s this innovative side of the education industry that brought her to Junior Achievement of Western PA (JA) as the organization’s new strategic director of education.
“I like to think outside of the box,” said Schlieper. “I like meeting the needs of diverse learners and the creativity that comes with that challenge. It’s so exciting to meet kids where they’re at, find the best ways to support them and see that light go off when they make the connections.”
Schlieper has held a myriad of diverse roles and experiences throughout her educational career. She graduated from Grove City College with a bachelor’s in elementary and early childhood education, going on to accept her first teaching positions at Fort Cherry and Peters Township School Districts in southwestern Pennsylvania.
After working in a traditional classroom setting for a few years, Schlieper sought out new, creative roles in the industry. Throughout her career, she’s worked as a gifted education teacher, worked collaboratively to create an online learning solutions platform for a cyber school in PA and studied the role of financial literacy for children at a finance-technology company.
“The jobs I’ve had have stretched me and allowed me to experience all the different sides of education,” said Schlieper. “From traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms to curriculum writing, I’ve really enjoyed crafting things from scratch to tackle a challenge.”
Schlieper’s appointment at JA comes at an exciting time for educators and parents across the Commonwealth as state lawmakers discuss Senate Bill 647 – a bill that would require all Pennsylvania students to complete a personal finance course to graduate.
JA’s curriculum focused on financial literacy proves to be a vital resource for schools as the bill moves through the state government. Schlieper is committed to supporting educators as they prepare for potential new standards by promoting, expanding and improving the financial literacy programs JA already has developed.
One such program is JA BizTown®, a fully interactive mock town that simulates the day-to-day functions of thriving communities to help 4th-6th grade students connect what they’re learning in school to the realities of the business world and everyday life. Students spend the day working a job, collecting paychecks and paying taxes as they learn about citizenship, work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.
Schlieper is thrilled to expand the program to even more schools, partners and volunteers for the 2023-2024 school year.
JA is also in the process of developing JA Finance Park, an educational experience like JA BizTown® made for middle and high school students to explore personal finance planning and make intelligent financial decisions related to income, expenses, savings and credit. Planning for JA Finance Park is still in the early stages but will serve as a vital resource to prepare the next generation for financial stability and fulfill potential new state standards.
Adapting to changes in state government isn’t the only challenge Schlieper plans to tackle in her new role. Unprecedented times often result in revolutionary, groundbreaking advances, and she wants to lead the charge for education throughout the region.
Pressing topics include working with local career and technical schools and employers to combat the growing gap in skilled trades workers, bringing more volunteers into classrooms to cope with the nationwide volunteer shortage and mitigating lingering classroom burnout from the COVID-19 pandemic while preparing for any additional future challenges and hurdles that may arise.
Schlieper doesn’t just rely on her diverse background to tackle these issues. She also has a team of talented educators and program managers with the same drive for innovation and creativity.
As an in-house hire, Schlieper has already formed productive working relationships with the education team during her time as a program manager. She’s aware of the strengths, weaknesses and goals her team possesses and is primed to initiate their plans for success.
“JA has so many amazing pieces in our organizations. We have diverse programming, talented staff and passionate partners and supporters who all want to impact students,” said Schlieper. “This team has the ability to make great impacts, and I hope to bring all our pieces together to spread our mission throughout the region.”
When asked about her previous professional successes, Schlieper said there’s not one single, tangible moment she’d like to call out. Rather, she thrives on full-circle moments when she meets former students and realizes she had a hand in helping them grow and make a difference in their communities.
As strategic director of education, Schlieper is excited to extend this full-circle moment beyond students and include the educators and school districts in JA’s 55-county footprint.
“I have built my entire career on bringing the best, most innovative educational concepts and teaching methods to make a lifelong impact on the students I’ve worked with. It’s time for me to take that skillset and expand it to support the hardworking educators throughout our region.”