Thanks to teacher Flo Falatko, Cromwell Valley fifth-graders excel at financial literacy

Fifth-graders build community in economics lessons

Heads bent over a webpage, the three fifth-graders at Cromwell Valley Elementary School weighed the pros and cons of the stocks in their portfolio. Had they gained or lost? They checked their cash balance and their total equity before deciding what to do next.

Anthony King, looking over the current price for Fiat Chrysler stock — $16.39— thought it was time to sell. "If we sell it we would make money," he said.

"Guys, I think we should sell Southwest Airlines," said James Anderson. "The stock is going down. The P/E ratio is too high."

Team member Finn Heming's fingers flew over the keyboard as he looked up each of the stocks on Yahoo's finance page, comparing P/E (price to earning) ratios and studying each stock's recent performance.

Like a couple of tycoons they tossed around the financial lingo with ease and reported they've made more than $7,000 since they started investing earlier in the school year.

Anthony, James and Finn are part of Florence Falatko's fifth-grade class. This year, for the first time all fifth-graders at Cromwell Valley are participating in the Stock Market Game, but only Room 18 is organized like a finely tuned community with jobs, salaries, a bank and a store.

"You can teach anything to kids," Falatko said. "You have to be excited and then they get excited."

Meanwhile, she observed, students are reinforcing math skills, honing their writing and public speaking abilities, and getting better at working as a team.

"It works," she said amid the hum of 22 students busy investing, buying and banking.

"It's become just part of what we do."

Economics for all grades

Public schools statewide are required to teach financial literacy, according to William Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. Classes in financial literacy — learning to save, invest and spend wisely — were mandated by the MSDE in 2011.

"Each school system comes up with its own plan," he said. It can become part of the math or social studies curriculum or be a special program.

Six standards have been set for students in grades three through 12: informed financially responsible decision-making; education, careers and income potential; managing money; managing credit and debt; building wealth; managing risks and preserving wealth, according to the Maryland Public Schools website.

In Baltimore County, children are introduced to economic concepts throughout their school days, according to Brian Schiffer, director of social science, fine arts and world languages. "It depends on the grade level," he said.

Grade three has an Economics and Me unit while all high school students must take a semester-long Economics and Public Issues course in order to graduate.

Topics are becoming more integrated as the new social studies curriculum, College, Career and Civics, is adopted, Schiffer said.

One way schools introduce economic lessons is The Stock Market Game, a website used by nearly a million students nationwide, according to Allen Cox, the program's coordinator for the sponsoring Maryland Council on Economic Education. In Maryland and the District of Columbia, there are nearly 3,500 teams in 300 schools, he said. The program is "Common Core correlated," he said.

Schiffer said Baltimore County teachers are encouraged to use the program but can't mandate it because of the costs, which are not funded by the education budget.

"This plants the seed in kids' minds that they need to become savers and investors," Cox said. "It's just as important as having health care."

"Flo [Falatko] really does above and beyond what we expect in our classrooms," Schiffer said.

Each week in Falatko's Cromwell Valley classroom, she introduces concepts, such as diversification of investments. During the school year, students have mastered calculating commission and working with integers and decimals.

"They're learning to make their money work for them," Falatko said.

The stock market program has been added to the weekly schedule for the whole fifth grade, said Cromwell's principal Darlene Morrison.

"They're being exposed to real world situations," Morrison said. "It's amazing how much information they've gotten from this."

For her efforts, Falatko was one of four recipients of the 2015 Financial Education and Capability Award at the March 30 session of the Maryland General Assembly. The award from the Maryland CASH Campaign, the Maryland Council on Economic Education and the MSDE, highlights schools' and community groups' programs to help the public become more financially secure, according to Robin McKinney, director of the Maryland CASH Campaign. "When you see techers are going above and beyond, you want to honor that," said McKinney, who called Falatko's work "innovative."

Forming community

Falatko, a former chartered financial adviser with USF&G, found inspiration for her novel way of organizing her classroom in the schoolwide behavior program, Good Behavior Makes Sense. Students in every grade are rewarded with pennies — paper or real — for good behavior in the classroom, cafeteria, hallway, bus or playground. Each classroom teacher decides for her students how to use those rewards, said Morrison. Cromwell Valley has used the school theme for the past three years.

Falatko decided to take those rewards even further to teach about money.

Students of Room 18 form a community. Each has a job with a salary and responsibilities that keep their community running smoothly. In September, students researched and applied for the available jobs — police, social worker, accountant, banker, shopkeeper. Halfway through the year, they could apply for different jobs, ask for a raise or make their case for continuing in their present occupation.

"Some wrote very nice essays about why they want to keep their jobs," Falatko said, adding, another honest student said she wanted a new job because she didn't do the old one.

The result, said Falatko, the students run the classroom.

"They're so good with each other with this," she said. "It's their classroom."

Two shopkeepers come in early to inventory their shop, set prices, choose sale items.

Social workers meet with students who've been absent to go over missed assignments and classwork.

Bankers keep track of students' accounts. Dorian Mitchell has handled the accounts all year; she's been mentoring the new banker, Corynne Brewer. "She's new but she'd doing good at it," Dorian said of her colleague.

There are expenses. Rent is two cents a week. Borrowing a pencil costs two cents.

The classroom shop sells items Falatko has collected: candy, pencils, baseball cards. A few little costlier items encourage saving. Falatko first ran the shop herself but turned it over to students the next year.

"It just runs so wonderfully and we still have instruction going on," she said. Sometimes the shop is only open for a specific period , such as lunch. Other times, it's open throughout the day. While their teacher is working with small groups, shopkeepers Cole Descoteau and Brady Gue take care of their customers.

"They really take their jobs quite seriously," Falatko said.

Students can invest in "mutual funds," which for the fifth grade means a pizza party for 100 pennies or extra recess for 50.

They can give to charity. "The whole idea is to give without thanks," Falatko said.

Since Falatko instituted the community concept, she's gotten encouraging feedback.

"I don't have behavior issues," Falatko said. "The students act as a community."

"It's opened up communication with their parents," she said. Parents report back their children's interest in saving. Two years ago one child asked for money to invest rather than presents for his birthday.

The community concept has grown every year. This year, Falatko introduced salary raises. Next year, she said, she'll teach about credit cards.

"I've become more confident with what the kids can handle," said Falatko, who has been at Cromwell Valley Elementary for 13 years.

She remembers learning to balance her checkbook, file taxes and other life skills in her own high school economics class.

"It's essential we don't wait until high school," she said.

Falatko found lots of support through the Maryland Council on Economic Education, including The Stock Market Game.

"There are so many resources that are out there," she said. "We just have to embrace it."

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