Lime Kiln eighth-grader Clare Napoli set out to be a big spender, envisioning herself with an expensive house and a sporty Ford Mustang. Then the Junior Achievement online economics education program, called JA Finance Park, gave her a virtual identity, and Napoli discovered that she was a parent of two children.
"It told me that I should plan better because I have to pay for their education," said Clare, who with other Howard County eighth-graders is using JA Finance Park as part of their consumer science curriculum. "I have to save my money. I bought a ranch house, and my car is just a little Toyota."
Clare was among about two dozen Lime Kiln eighth-graders who demonstrated the educational program Wednesday after the signing of a partnership between the Howard school system and Junior Achievement of Central Maryland that will bring JA Finance Park to all Howard middle schools.
Junior Achievement officials said that this school year all of the county's 3,600 eighth-graders will complete the JA Finance Park program, which includes 19 classroom sessions on finance and an online personal finance simulation that allows students to apply their lessons in a virtual community.
"It puts them in a simulated real-life situation where they need to budget the money that they make each month," said Cindy Dupski, family and consumer science teacher. "They have to make wise investing and spending decisions in here, and ultimately it gives them insight into their future when they have to make financial decisions on their own."
Howard schools Superintendent Sydney Cousin said that the partnership will assist the system in ensuring that students leave with the spending, saving and investing skills needed for their lives beyond high school.
"This is a golden opportunity for the Junior Achievement program to work with our students and our families and to talk about financial education and financial literacy," said Cousin. "This is not really a snapshot of what we do. We want to make sure that our students and our families are financially literate. It's not something that starts in the eighth grade and ends as part of a curriculum exercise. It's an ongoing activity that everyone should be aware of."
Jennifer Bodensiek, president of Junior Achievement of Central Maryland, said that JA Finance Park engages students at an age when they're initially exploring "what their next steps are" regarding life after high school.
The students begin the simulation by purchasing housing, transportation and utilities with no regard to cost or their financial situation — but with a sense of reinforcing what they've learned in class. Then their identities take shape as they are randomly assigned a particular age, career, socioeconomic level, family and occupation.
"We show them very quickly that all the things they said they wanted cost 'X,' and the average graduate is going to make 'X.' And based on those items they're really going to have a struggle with groceries and utilities and everything else," said Bodensiek.
"We tell them that they have to budget for their entire family, not just themselves. We get that question a lot," Bodensiek added. "We get, 'Can I live at home?' No. They look at different budget categories, primary expenses and secondary expenses."
Many of the Lime Kiln eighth-graders say they took approaches similar to that of Clare, starting out with lavish lifestyles then scaling back when hit with the reality of how much items cost.
Ciande Kiragu initially chose sports cars and smartphones, and then discovered that he was a married software developer with two children. "I had to take a lot of things off my list," he said.
"You get to know what it's like to grow and be on your own and have independence," said Richard Do. He said that initially he chose luxury items but discovered he had the identity of someone who recently graduated from college.
"I didn't have the money to do all that," said Richard.
Gracee Cleary said that in her virtual reality, she is a single parent making a good monthly income but still must spend and save wisely to provide her family with necessities.
Gracee said the tool has given her a sense of what adults go through in trying to resolve budget issues. "I remember with my age we're all just trying to get the best of the best," she said. "But now … I realize that it's so much more expensive than I thought it was. I didn't realize that a smartphone is an extra $15 to $30 [per month], and that it's more if you go over your text message [limit]. I knew you had to pay, but I didn't realize it was that much."
Clare said that what she's learned has allowed her to better grasp family conversations about finances. "My parents talk about it a lot at dinner, and I never really understood it," she said. "Now … I have a better understanding of what they're talking about, and I can kind of get into their conversations."