LAKEWOOD —The judge swiveled enthusiastically in his chair.
Sitting next to him, the mayor haggled over fines with citizens who had been ticketed by the police.
The officers wore hand-printed name tags while the bankers next door cashed checks with phony money.
It was a typical day at the kid-sized city of Young AmeriTowne in Lakewood, where elementary students take over a city for a day.
For students in Sue Akers' fifth-grade class at South Lakewood Elementary, it was the culmination of 30 hours of classroom time spent learning how to run a business, balancing a checkbook and applying for jobs along with running for elected office.
The 17-business "town" gives students a chance to put their lessons in free enterprise and entrepreneurship into practice.
"I've been waiting to do this since second grade," said 11-year-old Newton Taylor, who had won the campaign for mayor. "I had older friends tell me about it and they said it was the most exciting thing they did in school."
Next month, the flagship program of the Young Americans Center for Financial Education is adding a second mobile city to expand the hands-on show.
"This one will stay focused in Denver serving low-income schools," said Young Americans CEO Rich Martinez. "The demand is so huge; we already have 2,500 kids signed up through May."
Almost 27,000 Colorado elementary school students — or about 40 percent of fifth-graders statewide — completed the program last year at the mobile classroom and brick-and-mortar sites in Lakewood, Wray and Denver. Since beginning as a summer camp in 1990, the program has expanded to 295 schools and fulfills the current K-12 state curriculum requirements for personal financial literacy.
"The kids that normally don't excel at school, they excel at AmeriTowne," said Akers. "I truly think it's the best program out there, because it's all real-world and hands-on."
The traveling mini-town features nine business storefronts — a television station, sign/print shop, snack shop, container store, newspaper, bank, medical center and radio station — as well as the Towne Hall, where the elected mayor and judge run the city.
Martinez said the program offers a rare opportunity for kids to get hands-on experience with finances, and not just classroom lectures.
"Something we don't do in any of our programs is sugarcoat things. Businesses succeed and fail all the time in AmeriTowne," Martinez said. "Money is still kind of a taboo subject not really discussed around the dinner table, but you have to find a way to talk about these things."
The nonprofit is exploring breaking ground next summer in Belmar on its second youth-only bank. The original Cherry Creek bank is billed as the only one in the world specifically designed for people ages 21 and younger.
Lakewood deputy city manager Nanette Neelan said having thousands of kids from across the state pass through Lakewood every year is a rite of passage of sorts.
She said: "Several successful people in the business community point to their experience at Young AmeriTowne as the one where their careers started."
Austin Briggs: 303-954-1729 or
Santino Lopez, 10, works as a mechanic during the Young AmeriTowne program Jan. 29 at Young Americans Center in Lakewood. Young AmeriTowne is a