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'It's our future': Cromwell Valley fifth-graders get a wealth of financial education

Dylan Nixon loves playing the stock market. He and his investment team research investments carefully, keeping a close eye on the put-call ratio and making sure they have a responsible balance of cash and stocks. His team diversifies its portfolio and knows that the best way to grow wealth is to start investing young.

As far as starting early, Dylan will have a leg up — he is only 10 years old.

“It’s important to know so in the future we know how it works,” said Dylan, a student in Florence Falatko’s fifth-grade math class at Cromwell Valley Elementary Regional Magnet.

Dylan and his classmates learn about investing through the Stock Market Game, a simulated investment game in which students are allocated a pretend amount of money to “invest” and use real financial indicators to measure their success. The game is one of many ways Falatko, a former hedge fund manager and award-winning math teacher, is instructing about financial literacy.

“It’s important to send children into the world understanding how to manage their money,” Falatko said. “And you’ve got to start young.”

At the school’s second annual “Ignite Financial Literacy Night” on March 5, parents of fifth-graders learned about the school’s financial education program and got their own lessons, with rotating workshops on college and retirement savings, estate management and economic forecasting.

Falatko’s fifth-graders ran the show, kicking off the evening with a rap about saving and investing. “It’s our future and we matter,” they said together.

Dylan said in an interview that he likes Falatko’s math classes because he wants to be an architect.

In a presentation in Falatko’s classroom, a group of fifth-graders told parents about different financial literacy programs in their class, like the Girls in Finance Book Club. Three of those girls talked about how reading a book about a girl trading on the stock market helped get them interested in finance, too.

Falako, won the national Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching last year. She is in her 16th year teaching at Cromwell Valley.

She said she started the financial literacy night in order to share the students’ excitement about finances with their parents and to get families talking about money.

“Our parents, as stakeholders, are not all comfortable discussing finance. It’s sensitive for some people,” Falatko said. “So I wanted to offer what I thought would be valuable information for the parents.”

Melinda Boarman, a Towson parent of a student at Cromwell Valley, said the adult workshops came at an important time for parents of fifth-graders, who she she said are “just thinking about college” and other financial decisions that come with age, like retirement savings.

In one workshop, Maryland 529 representative Andy Matts explained the program’s two state-run college savings plans, the Prepaid College Trust and the College Investment Plan.

In another, Baltimore County Public Schools officials and representatives of the Maryland Council on Economic Education talked to parents about ways students are learning financial literacy in schools.

Michael Crispens, the school system’s coordinator of elementary social studies, said teaching children about finance is a way to “disrupt the cycle of poverty.”

In an interview, Falatko said she was influenced by her own experience growing up poor.

“When I got to college there were kiosks all over the campus handing out charge cards. All of a sudden it was like I can have whatever I want,” Falatko said. Using credit cards tightened Falatko’s budget – If she had had financial education in school, she said, she would have known how to spend and budget money more wisely.

Crispens asked parents to think back on their own financial education — or lack thereof. Even as adults, he said, many people do not feel comfortable talking about mutual funds or dividends. “That is something we have to change,” Crispens said.

Boarman said that when she was growing up, money “just wasn’t talked about … there was no plan.” She said Cromwell Valley’s program is “great.”

“I think they need to see what the future holds,” Boarman said. “Right now, they just know that money comes from their parents. It’s great seeing them learning what they can do for themselves.”

Crispens said Baltimore County is implementing financial literacy in curricula across the school system — assigning children’s books about finance, for example. He said education can help children make good decisions later in life, such as saving enough for retirement and maintaining a good credit score. And Cromwell Valley is a leader in that work, he said.

“The goal is to be a lifelong financially literate individual to help grow wealth over time,” Crispens said.

For Falatko, financial education is about more than smart saving and spending, it is about preventing widespread social ills, like the 2008 financial crisis and the crush of student loans burdening recent graduates.

Falatko said someone recently asked her where she wants to be in five hears.

“I have no idea where I want to be,” she said she replied. “But I know where I want financial literacy to be: in every school in the state.”

asolomon@baltsun.com

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