Kids buy into programs on dollars, sense

The Baltimore Sun

The line snaked halfway across the room as the early-morning customers waited to deposit their quarters, nickels and dollar bills.

"I'll take the next person," said Lynn Kirby, assistant manager of Westminster Union Bank's TownMall branch. One by one, her young clients stepped up to her "counter" -- a small desk in a classroom.

Kirby recorded their names, account numbers and deposits before slipping them into a manila envelope: $6. $5. $2.39.

Her fellow teller, fifth-grader Billy Raley, was on his second tour of duty that Tuesday morning.

"Taking in the money, writing it down, sparked my interest," Billy said, explaining why he volunteered for the job. "I thought it was cool."

The cool factor might draw pupils, but Friendship Valley and a handful of other elementary schools that provide pupil banking have a loftier goal in mind: teaching children financial responsibility and instilling in them a habit of saving -- early.

The banking partnership is one of several activities that Friendship Valley Elementary has launched this year.

"It teaches our children to save. It also teaches them to set goals and to have a reason for saving," said Patricia Dorsey, the school's principal.

Banking also provides a practical math lesson, Dorsey added.

That agenda fits snugly into the school system's goals of promoting financial literacy among its students, most recently by requiring a half-credit course in the subject to graduate.

But Dorsey and Linda Yingling, assistant principal, have started even earlier. Their school also has incorporated an economics program from Junior Achievement of Central Maryland, a nonprofit that teaches youth about the role of business in society.

That program uses parents to teach in-class lessons on being consumers, business owners and employees.

"It's something that typically isn't covered under the curriculum," said Kathleen Brennan, senior program manager for Junior Achievement. "People in general do not have the basic understanding of personal and business finance."

Yingling said the economics classes underscore a "lifelong habit."

"What better time to start teaching, to prepare our children for this important knowledge and handling of their finances, than to grow up with it?" Yingling said.

And so, one Tuesday morning, volunteer parent Roberta Davis stood before a third-grade class. She wrote three words on the chalkboard: consume, produce, entrepreneur.

"Today we're going to be restaurant owners," Davis said.

The pupils exchanged excited looks.

"There's lots of decisions that go into building restaurants and becoming a restaurant owner," Davis said. "What does it mean to consume?"

Ryan King, 8, threw his hand in the air. Davis called on him.

"You buy things, and you use them," he said.

But Davis' next question stumped the class: What's an entrepreneur?

"A what?" another boy asked.

"That's what you guys are actually going to be today," Davis said. "Someone who creates and organizes a new business."

The class split into groups, poring over a sheet of paper that asked them about the kind of food they would like to serve, the type of people they would hire and the amount they would charge. The owners would have to pay $65 in rent and operations costs, Davis said. So, if they had 10 customers, would they charge $7? $8? $9?

"Well, $90 is a little too much for them to pay, so I thought maybe $70 or $80," Matthew Hamilton, 8, said to his group.

Jack Bowersox, 9, agreed. "We want to make some money, but we don't want people to not come here," he said, referring to the Italian restaurant they had decided to open.

"How about $70?" said the third group member, 8-year-old Nathan Bentz.

"Let's do $80," Jack replied. The other boys nodded. Not too high. Not too low.

"People a lot of the time like to save their money so they can buy more things for themselves, like food or shelter," Jack later said to Davis, explaining their decision.

Schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said he would like to see more of the financial learning that Junior Achievement programs foster.

"I don't think we can do financial literacy with a one-shot deal," Ecker said. "We have to really talk about financial literacy a number of different times during a student's school life."

Susan Milstein, an accounting professor at McDaniel College, said everything comes down to money -- and confidence in handling it is key. "There's just never enough training in this kind of thing," Milstein said. "You're prepared for everything else. Why shouldn't you be prepared for finance and business and purchases?"

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