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Colorado Students Begin to Learn Financial Discipline

NewsHour with Jim Lehrer | PBS
March 16, 2012
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GWEN IFILL: The big post-holiday sales rush began today, as retailers served up deep discounts and easy gift exchanges to lure shoppers back to the mall. But, in the state of Colorado, school-age children have been prepped somewhat differently for the shopping season. Schools there are trying to teach children about the realities of spending and financial discipline.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden explains.

TOM BEARDEN: A carefree winter day on a preschool playground in a Denver suburb, 3- to 5-year-old children who are many years away from the realities of adult life. Or are they?

CHILD: I am going to buy a dog.

WOMAN: You're going to buy a dog.

TOM BEARDEN: These kids are learning about money, drawing coins and dollar bills, simulating buying things from the classroom store, acting as cashiers to make those sales.

In 2009, the Colorado legislature mandated a change in state educational standards, requiring that personal financial literacy be part of public education from preschool through high school. The state schools had to begin teaching to that mandate this fall.

Ruth Hartvigson is an early childhood coach for the Jefferson County School System. She says they were skeptical of the whole idea at first.

RUTH HARTVIGSON, Jefferson County Schools: We didn't want to make these kiddos materialistic. And it was a shift in thinking for us as an educational staff to think that's not what this is all about. We're just helping them to know another fact of life.

AMANDA JEROME, Anderson Preschool: Alright, Haley, let's clean up our books.

TOM BEARDEN: Amanda Jerome is a preschool instructor.

AMANDA JEROME: Well, I think it's important to teach responsibility. I think it's important to teach them to appreciate things, that we all work hard in life, and when you do -- when you work hard, you're rewarded with it, and that's how you get the things that you want.

CHRISTINA CLIMACO, community support manager, Great-West Insurance: People sell houses to earn money.

TOM BEARDEN: Sitting in on the class this day, Christina Climaco. She's not an educator. She's an executive at Great-West Insurance, one of the country's larger financial service companies. When the legislature passed the mandate, it didn't provide any additional money for it. In fact, Colorado has been forced to make massive cuts in the education budget.

Great-West decided to step in and help. Climaco runs the company's financial literacy program, which last fall awarded 25 $5,000 grants to individual teachers all over the state.

CHRISTINA CLIMACO: We're already seeing that these grants are having a huge and tremendous impact on student knowledge and just really empowering teachers to teach personal finance in the classrooms.

TOM BEARDEN: Climaco says the grant applications proposed many different approaches.

CHRISTINA CLIMACO: They set up the classroom. There were bakeries and coffee shops and hair salons. And you have to go to those, you know, different shops and give them fake money. And they're starting to learn: I actually have to give something to get something back in return.

So, while it does seem like it might be too much, those are really the basics that kids in preschool need to start learning about.

KRISTIN BERNSTEIN, Eldorado Elementary School: So, make sure you have a notebook and your pencil ready to go. Make sure that your banking statement's up to date.

TOM BEARDEN: Kristin Bernstein takes it a step further for her fourth-graders at Eldorado Elementary School in Douglas County. She got one oft $5,000 grants and used part of the money to buy iPad tablet computers, which the children use for everything from simple calculations to Internet financial research. She serves them a steady diet of fiscal responsibility.

KRISTIN BERNSTEIN: What do I want to buy? Why do I want to buy it? Why is really, really important. That's what's gotten people in lots of trouble with their money because they bought things they really didn't need. And they really didn't know why they wanted it. They just bought it to have it.

TOM BEARDEN: Her classroom has a store stocked by parents. And students use the simulated money they earn in class to buy things. The purchases are deducted from their classroom bank accounts.

CHILD: Remember, that's $1.50.

CHILD: Okay.

CHILD: You want gum. You have got it. Gum is popular today.

TOM BEARDEN: A student economist evaluates supply and demand and adjusts the store's prices accordingly.

KRISTIN BERNSTEIN: They will also tell me what we're running low on because of supply and demand. So my kids have also had lessons on supply and demand and raising and lowering of prices. And they have actually got to watch that happen in stores with the Christmas and holiday season around.

CHILD: If you buy a gum, you will be the last person to get this.

TOM BEARDEN: Bernstein says the children have mastered some surprisingly sophisticated concepts.

CHILD: I have learned about banking and how you save your money to do things. And I learned what interest is.

KRISTIN BERNSTEIN: Some kids see their parents going through tough times at home and naturally come to school with questions about what is going on with negative money situations.

TOM BEARDEN: Sixty miles north, sixth-graders at Walt Clark Middle School punch a time clock before class begins. Teachers Linda Pfeiffer and Chad Custer say that's designed to reinforce the idea that going to school is an actual job. Students also have simulated outside jobs. They learn how to total up their income, deduct taxes and monthly expenses, and figure out what they can afford to do with what's left over.

WOMAN: You need to decide, can you afford to go to the movies this Friday night? Can you get popcorn, if you can afford to go to the movies?

TOM BEARDEN: And some students find out the consequences of not being prepared to work.

CHAD CUSTER, Walt Clark Middle School: We're going to unemploy you. We're going to let you go from this position.

CHILD: Again?

CHAD CUSTER: Again.

CHILD: Okay.

CHAD CUSTER: So you are now fired from this job. So good luck to you.

This boy, great kid, but came to class unprepared and not ready to work. And he has this behavior quite often. When that type of behavior happens, we let them go from their job knowing that, if you don't come to work and ready to work, chances are you're not going to keep that job.

TOM BEARDEN: Pfeiffer also handed out what she called good, bad and ugly cards, real life curve balls like unexpected car repairs.

CHILD: Oh, no.

TOM BEARDEN: Did you get a big bill today?

CHILD: Yeah, it was $400 for -- my car needs new brakes, cylinder thing.

TOM BEARDEN: Ouch.

CHILD: Yeah.

TOM BEARDEN: Is that going to be hard to pay?

CHILD: Yeah, kind of.

LINDA PFEIFFER, Walt Clark Middle School: We have seen kids really starting to have those aha moments of, wait a minute, doing a minimum wage job is not going to get me to where I want to be in life. And they're starting to understand that their parents are struggling. They -- it's tough to make ends meet, even having had an education. So, they're seeing that the education is huge.

TOM BEARDEN: The teachers we spoke to all said the children's parents were on board with teaching their kids about money, that most were quite enthusiastic. They plan to pass on the lessons they learn this year to fellow teachers, leveraging the grant money to further develop financial literacy education throughout all of the state's public schools.



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