How local high school students are ― and aren’t ― taught financial literacy
Clicking through a slideshow for her personal finance students at Ledyard High School, Angela Folino pulled up an image of her biweekly pay stub, wanting to illustrate that a salary alone doesn’t show the full picture of income.
She explained the difference between the $3,260.08 gross pay and $1,844.29 take-home pay by walking students through the deductions: the Blue Cross Blue Shield plan that covers two kids, dental, vision, flexible spending account, standard life insurance, long-term disability, 401(k), federal taxes, state taxes, and union dues.
“Kinda depressing, all that stuff that has to come out,” she said. This came in between showing students how to fill out a W-4 form, which tells an employer how much to withhold from a paycheck, and having them look up income tax rates in different states. Folino, who also teaches accounting and finance classes, teaches personal finance to 100 students per year, and the course is now open to grades 9 to 12.
She said her classes are always full, but as is the case at other high schools in Connecticut, students aren’t required to take financial literacy coursework.
A proposed bill in the legislature would make it a graduation requirement, but in the meantime, local students are voluntarily taking personal finance classes or getting classroom visits from outside educators.
Miria Gray, community education officer at Chelsea Groton Bank, submitted testimony in favor of this bill, and she goes into schools and works with teachers to teach them financial literacy curriculum. While Gray spoke highly of the offerings at some local schools, she sees a lot of inequities in financial literacy education.
“Unfortunately, the districts that have more money are able to provide the financial education for students,” Gray said. “You find that the lower-income households are not getting the same equitable education as others, and it just becomes a little problematic.”
Another issue is that students from families who have only ever lived in apartments incorrectly assume they’ll never be able to own a home.
The Day is reporting on how financial literacy is taught as part of our Housing Solutions Lab, to show how young people are and aren't getting on track to manage the expenses of renting and homeownership.
A financial planner for 22 years before coming to Ledyard, Folino saw people getting themselves into debt and not knowing how to get out, so her goal was to teach people at a young age how to not get into a financial hole in the first place.
Ledyard High School had an accounting class, but not personal finance when she arrived a decade ago, so she wrote a few grants and started one.
She starts the course with budgeting and delayed gratification ― “McDonald’s doesn’t need your money; they have billions of dollars. YOU need your money,” she says ― before moving into student loans and scholarships, income and taxes, identity theft, credit scores and insurance.
When talking about credit scores, Folino has students pick a score at random and call local car dealerships to learn the different interest rates on the same car.
And when talking about scholarships, her framing is that if a student spends two hours putting together an essay and successful application for a $1,000 scholarship, they have essentially made $500 an hour. She also has them watch Dave Ramsey’s documentary “Borrowed Future: How Student Loans are Killing the American Dream.”
The film hit senior Ciara May McGrath hard, and it motivated her to apply for seven scholarships over the next two weeks.
McGrath said she decided to take the course because, “I thought it would really good for my future to know how to handle money, because I don’t right now,” especially considering she has been focused on extracurriculars and hasn’t had a job.
She was accepted into her dream school, Boston Conservatory at Berklee, to study vocal performance.
The impact down the road
Stanley Green, 23, took multiple classes Folino taught, learning from her not only financial literacy but also communication skills. He now uses what he learned in his everyday life, where work involves a lot of billing and revenue.
After graduating from high school, Green worked as a front desk associate at the Planet Fitness in Waterford before moving up to team leader and now general manager.
Matthew Scahill, also 23, took the personal finance class his junior year and thinks financial literacy curriculum should be mandatory for all high school students.
“Teaching people how to best utilize their financial resources is not really the highest priority top down from the government to the educational system,” he commented. But he thinks having his interest sparked at a young age will have a big impact on the rest of his life. Scahill studied business management at Curry College and now works as a business development representative for a software company based in Boston.
At Fitch High School in Groton, junior David Haugeto took teacher Debra Jenkins’ personal finance course his sophomore year and plans to be a teacher’s assistant for her next year. He decided to take the class after working a job mowing lawns one summer and seeing issues with how he spent his earnings.
“Living in Mystic, there are a ton of options to spend your money, and I really felt that I blew through a lot of money in a lot of stupid ways,” Haugeto said, citing repeated visits to Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream along with trips to Six Flags and the beach.
In class, he recalled playing a game similar to the board game The Game of Life, in which players make decisions on a job, marriage and house. But in this version, everyone had a certain amount of money to buy things like utilities, housing, clothes and transportation.
“We’re teenagers, and when we think expenses, we think concert tickets, food, Dunkin’, things like that,” he said, “and it really opened our eyes to: holy crap, adult money is a real thing but adult expenses is a bigger thing.”
Haugeto also recalled a project where he had to pretend to buy a big-ticket item ― he chose a gaming computer ― and only make the minimum payment each month, and he saw that he would be paying four times as much for the computer because of interest.
Carly Fisher’s older son took one of Jenkins’ classes while her son currently at Fitch took Personal Finance I and II, and Fisher recalls repeatedly emailing the teacher to thank her.
“I think my older son picked it because I suggested it, because it sounded that it would be very beneficial having life skills taught at a very early age,” Fisher said. She said he was excited learning about banking and wrote his first resume in this class, along with learning about how to write a check and apply for a credit card.
“These are basic life skills, and we’re failing these kids every day because classes like this either aren’t offered or they aren’t mandatory,” Fisher said.
In late March, Jenkins’ personal finance class talked about postsecondary options. She said a big “a-ha moment” is students realizing they don’t have to go to college, or at least not right away. She said she is “pushing the trades big-time right now,” especially with so many tradesmen and women at Electric Boat getting to retirement age.
In Personal Finance II, she takes students to Cardinal Honda as part of learning how to purchase or lease a car, and to Country Glen Apartments to look at documents to lease an apartment. Students can also get paid to work as a teller during the school day in the Charter Oak Federal Credit Union branch located in the school.
Jenkins has been teaching personal finance for 18 years and said one change has been more students wanting to be entrepreneurs.
Waterford High School teacher Alyson Woznicki has been teaching personal finance for 16 years and said students have a lot more knowledge now of the stock market and investing, in part because of what they see on social media.
Her course, offered to juniors and seniors, touches on credit, insurance, banking, investing and taxes. But with the rise of payment platforms like Venmo, she has slowly phased out teaching students how to write a check, though she says they can go over it at the end if they’re interested.
Woznicki said when she runs into alumni in the grocery store when they’re home for Thanksgiving, they’ll talk to her about signing up for credit cards and saving for cars.
Beyond the personal finance course
Like other schools, Norwich Free Academy has a semester-long personal finance course that gets into credit, budgeting, insurance, identity theft, banking, and if time allows, investing.
But business teacher Linda Farinha said the school’s response is also, “How can we get financial literacy into as many places as possible?” That means this is woven into consumer math and senior seminar.
Farinha said the senior seminar course is only about three years old and was born out of input from business partners, such as Collins & Jewell, Miranda Creative, and banks.
They pointed to three main areas lacking among graduates: “soft skills” like communication and time management, Microsoft Office knowledge, and financial literacy.
Farinha said senior seminar was initially designed for students in school-to-work programs, such as manufacturing, certified nursing assistant and now emergency medical technician. But a lot of other students are now taking the course.
In one recent class, she discussed how to pick a credit card, and how to “shop” for interest rates, introductory rate, fees, grace period and rewards.
To illustrate that the commercials she showed don’t tell the full story, Farinha had students split into groups to look at different credit card offers. She had them jot down information from the Schumer box, a legally required table with rates and fees. It’s named for Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, who was responsible for the legislation in 1988 as a congressman.
The students largely came away unimpressed with the offers.
The senior seminar class has also gotten visits from Gray, of Chelsea Groton Bank, who shared some of what she does in various schools.
She described one exercise she has done in schools in which students are randomly assigned a credit score, which they can’t look at, and the person with the highest score gets the first pick of the doughnuts she brings.
She asked them what would be different if they could open their hypothetical credit score at the beginning and have the opportunity to “improve” it by answering questions throughout class.
Gray went to Norwich Technical High School recently to talk to students in the Business Management & Administration program about career options and starting a business. Gray went through salary ranges for different careers ― such as tattoo artist, web developer/graphic designer, and dental assistant ― and explained that those on the higher end are the business owners.
“Did I ever think I would be working at a bank teaching financial education? The answer is absolutely not,” said Gray, who has a degree in education and worked as a classroom teacher before moving to Norwich Community Development Corp. and then Chelsea Groton.
She had previous banking experience from working as a teller for Eastern Connecticut Savings Bank summers and holidays. And she pushes this as a career for people who have customer service skills but don’t want to work in a lower-paid customer-facing job, such as at a coffee shop.
Gray is also vice president of the board for Connecticut Jump$tart Coalition, made up of representatives from “business, government and education who have joined together to improve the personal financial literacy of Connecticut’s youth.”
She and President Faye Griffiths-Smith, a family economics educator with UConn Extension, were among those with tables at a recent financial wellness fair in Hartford, in the connector between the Capitol and Legislative Office Building.
Griffiths-Smith said the coalition is holding its first in-person Financial Literacy Summit this year since the start of the pandemic, Aug. 1-2 at Foxwoods, with space for 40 teachers.
Through UConn Extension, she also holds a simulation in which students can pick from one of 140 career options, find out an estimate of taxes, and take a “chance card” to simulate something good or bad happening in their financial life. She said it’s eye-opening because it’s not her telling them, but students experiencing it.
Griffiths-Smith also commented, “If students understood the cost of things, what they’re going to be earning and what it takes to pay it back, they could be making better decisions.”
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