The Junior Achievement Finance Park program reaches 9,000 eighth graders each year in the county, teaching students the four financial building blocks. (Andrew Michaels / BSMG)
Courtney Houston, an eight-grader at Dwight Eisenhower Middle School in Laurel, walked into the Junior Achievement Finance Park in Landover Thursday morning for a school field trip. For the next four hours, Houston said, she would take on the financial responsibilities of an adult with her own simulated credit score, career and salary, spouse, children and debt history.
The Prince George's County Public School System implemented the financial literacy program into its middle schools, trade schools and academies in 2015, said the finance park facility's vice president of communications, Sarah Dohl. The Junior Achievement Finance Park program reaches 9,000 eighth graders each year in the county, she said, teaching students the four financial building blocks — income; saving, investing, and risk management; debit and credit; and budgeting.
After 14 hours of financial classroom instruction split between their social studies and mathematics courses, more than 100 Dwight Eisenhower Middle eighth graders came to the finance park Oct. 13 to put their newfound knowledge to the test, Dohl said.
"It's really a movement to ensure that kids are able to connect what they're learning in the classroom to what they can achieve if they work hard and dream big," Dohl said. "As kids make these spending decisions and understand how much life costs, we challenge them to think about things, like electives they're going to take in high school, where they want to go to college, and what kind of career they want."
Junior Achievement of Greater Washington formed an agreement with Fairfax County Public Schools in 2010, Dohl said, and brought its first Maryland location to Landover last year, which is specifically used for Prince George's County schools as well as other area school systems, such as those in Montgomery County and Washington, D.C. Junior Achievement is a nationwide organization dedicated to teaching children financial literacy.
Junior Achievement of Greater Washington owns the building in Landover, while Prince George's County owns the property on which the building sits. Dohl said the school system has signed a 15-year agreement and pays for the Junior Achievement curriculum.
Sponsored by Capital One, the program is led by corporate and community volunteers as well as parents and school staff at the Junior Achievement facility.
"They're able to add their own life experiences as they're talking to these kids about budgeting and explaining some of the things that they've faced in their own life," Dohl said. "That's really what makes it come alive for kids."
At the beginning of Thursday's visit, students were split into about 20 different homerooms, known as storefronts, where they were provided with a "life scenario" to follow as they made financial decisions. The storefronts are sponsored by corporate and community organizations, including Capital One for banking, Pepco and Washington Gas for utilities, and Prince George's County Community College for education.
Courtney, 13, joined six classmates inside the Lerner Enterprises storefront, specializing in residential properties. Her simulated life found her single with no children, she said. Once everyone was assigned a scenario, students established their individual net monthly income and monthly savings goals before visiting other storefronts to discuss such life necessities as a mortgage, transportation costs, child care expenses and health insurance.
"I'm a little scared because being an adult seems really hard, but I think it is going to be OK," Courtney said, accepting her job as an optician with roughly $2,000 in her budget per month after taxes. "From what I can tell, [my salary] is not going to be enough. From some of the things we already did in math class, I know that what I'm making is going to be hard to deal with."
As a technical writer, Vacha Patel, 12, said she was happy to find herself with more than $3,000 left in her budget per month after taxes. While technical writing is not the career she wants to pursue, Vacha said she believes that she should be able to budget her money wisely.
"When I work up this morning and I was thinking about what I wanted to do today and learn, I thought to make sure that I understand to pay myself first and learn why it's important to save your money," she said. "For emergencies and vacations, I want to make ... around $500 in my savings account for each month."
Later in the day, students allocated their savings into funds of their choice and paid their bills using debit cards or tablets.
The classroom instruction provided the background information, such as vocabulary, the students needed to complete the program's simulation, said Dwight Eisenhower Middle School math teacher Jung Nam, a leader in Courtney's and Vacha's group. Many students thought $2,000 was a lot of money, but were surprised when reality set in and budgets were finalized, she added.
"It's not a lot of money when you start paying for things like housing," Nam said. "I definitely struggled when I got my first credit card and was in debt in college loans. It wasn't easy. [Students are] really seeing how much their parents are stretching every dollar for them, their education and the things they want as a child."
Debra Martin, an assistant principal for the eighth grade at Dwight Eisenhower Middle, said students connected with the program, internalizing their 'wants' versus 'needs' and understanding the financial process their parents follow.
Students also learned that while money is a life necessity, it doesn't mean everything, Martin added.
"It's about budgeting and managing your money so that you're making the most of your dollars and enjoying the quality of life that you want," Martin said. "It's been a pleasure watching the 'ah-ha' moments and the excitement. I truly wish I had an experience like this when I was their age, or even when I was in college."
Tracye Funn, manager of corporate contributions for Washington Gas, said the company was proud to cosponsor the program with Pepco and help a younger generation recognize the importance of a balanced budget and savings.
"We think it is important that, as young people learn about financial literacy, they factor into their daily budget what it takes to make sure that they can manage their utility bills as well," Funn said. "Energy is a very important part of the daily budget not only for our young people, but also for their parents."
Courtney and Vacha agreed that the program was eye opening, taking them one step closer to adulthood.
"I want to have good savings because you never know what's going to come up. That's extremely important," Courtney said. "I also want to live in a nice house because working is hard, so I want to come home to a nice house. I just want to make sure I have savings, though."