It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Friday morning in a nondescript building off of Pickett Road in Fairfax, where 138 eighth grade students from Frost Middle School are noisily settling in to the auditorium for an orientation.
“Today, you get to be an adult,” says the grown-up at the front of the room before rolling a video that introduces the purpose of the field trip: money.
The cheerful cartoon kids on the screen explain that the students will spend the day learning how to create a budget and stick to it, just like the adults in their lives do.
“At the end of the day, like all adults, you’re going to pay your bills,” the cartoons continue, before offering up some advice to the students. “You may forget you have a husband or a wife or a kid who needs to be fed … Please don’t forget these people! Your budget must take care of everyone in your family.”
At the conclusion of the orientation video, two adult volunteers open the large double doors that lead into a shopping mall-like maze of kiosks representing each category of a typical budget.
Welcome to Finance Park.
This isn’t your average field trip. In today’s digital world, Finance Park serves as a physical representation of real-world budgeting, where students spend a day visiting storefronts that correlate with line-item budget categories (think: a stop for the mortgage, a stop for groceries, a stop for child care, with 23 categories in all) and learn what it’s really like to take on the adult responsibility of providing for yourself and your family.
The day is met with lots of eye-opening realizations for the students (“Holy crap, this is expensive!” and “I can’t even afford this!” were just a few of the exclamations heard during the bill-paying phase of the day), but it’s a real-world exercise that education and financial experts say is of dire importance as today’s adults and recent grads are grappling with astronomical levels of student debt. Here in the DC region, for example, the median student loan debt is more than $22,000—and the DC region ranks No. 1 for student debt holders who owe more than $100,000.
Fairfax County’s eighth graders getting a hard-knocks lesson in what managing your money really looks like is reflective of how schools in Virginia and across the nation are working to raise a new generation that is fluent in financial literacy.
A Lesson in Adulthood
Finance Park is run by Junior Achievement, a national organization dedicated to teaching K-12 students about financial literacy, work readiness and entrepreneurship through real-world and hands-on programs. There are 23 Finance Parks in the nation, and three in the Washington region (Fairfax, and Prince George’s County and Montgomery County in Maryland), where tens of thousands of students are taking part in the financial simulation each year.
A day spent at Finance Park is the culmination of a 14-lesson course, taught in the history and civics class for Fairfax County eighth graders, where they learn how to create and manage a budget, tackle debt, invest and save. When students arrive at Finance Park, each one is given a preloaded tablet with an identity that includes all the trappings of adulthood, including a career and annual income, debt, a credit score and a family. Then they spend the next four hours learning about and creating a budget based on that scenario—guided by their teachers and adult volunteers.
The students experience “a lot of surprise,” says Chelsea Soneira, vice president of education for Junior Achievement of Greater Washington. “They realize that being an adult is harder than they thought. [They’ll say], ‘I have to thank my parents,’ and, ‘Kids are expensive,’ and they have the realization that they can’t just ask for things. Money comes from somewhere and goes somewhere and that you have to work hard to put yourself in a place where you can afford the lifestyle that you want.”
Finance Park and the lessons leading up to it are “really their first exposure to [financial literacy],” says Steven Busch, a civics teacher and the Finance Park coordinator for Frost Middle School. “It gets them thinking, ‘These are things I need to start thinking about for my future’ … I think it’s really important for them. It’s an aspect of life that can get overlooked.”
A Graduation Requirement
“Overlooked” is arguably a fair characterization, at least, prior to the real estate bubble bursting and subsequent market crash over a decade ago.
Finance Park was created, not uncoincidentally, around that same time, when the nation was reeling from an economic nosedive.
“After the financial crash in 2007 and 2008, a lot of states responded with legislation to require financial literacy instruction for students, which is something nobody had seen before,” says Soneira. “This was something where everyone realized, ‘Uh oh, we haven’t actually been teaching this and it’s really important.’ It’s important that we make sure that there are certain things that every young person knows growing up.”
Here in Northern Virginia, the Fairfax outpost of Finance Park graduates about 38,000 students per year, including all eighth graders in Fairfax County, along with select students in the city of Falls Church, the city of Alexandria and Prince William County.
And while the program is growing in popularity—Junior Achievement is currently working on strategies to reach more students in both the greater Washington region and nationwide—it’s just one instructional resource that was developed post-Great Recession.
In fact, starting with the 2010-2011 school year, the commonwealth of Virginia has required all high school students to have one credit in economics and personal finance in order to graduate.
“We thought it was very important to include both economics and personal finance,” says Judith Sams, educational specialist for business and information technology in the Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education. “It’s more than just financial literacy. The students need to know what role economics play in personal finance and, vice versa, what role does personal finance play in understanding the economy.”
Prior to making it a graduation requirement, a similar course was offered to students in Virginia public schools, but now every student benefits from the real-world curriculum, says Sams. And, “There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t hear from more than one student, teachers in the classroom especially, ‘Thank you so much for making me take this course. It was one of the most valuable courses I’ve ever had.’”
The course has now been a requirement for a decade and, in January, the Virginia Board of Education is expected to approve revised standards of learning for the course, called Economics and Personal Finance. The updated standards of learning will include stressing the importance of post-secondary studies and the connection between higher education or training and higher earnings. The added curriculum has an eye toward helping students navigate the student loan crisis, including understanding the FAFSA and applying for student scholarships and loans. Essentially, the new requirements will teach students “how to avoid student debt beyond what you can afford,” says Sams.
A Leader in Financial Literacy
The required course, along with supplementary lessons like those at Finance Park, have caught the attention of education experts. In fact, Virginia’s public school system is considered one of the best in the nation for teaching financial literacy.
The Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont puts out a National Report Card on State Efforts to Improve Financial Literacy in High Schools, and Virginia is one of only seven states to receive an A rating. Moreover, W!SE, a national education nonprofit dedicated to financial literacy and college- and career-readiness, announced its Blue Star Schools for the 2018-2019 school year. Of the 247 schools on the national list, 155—or 63 percent—were in Virginia.
The fact that Virginia is a leader in financial literacy education is promising for the next generation of students.
“First and foremost, I don’t know if [students], when they graduate, if they’re going to need to speak French or Spanish. I don’t know if they’re going to need trigonometry and calculus, but the one thing I do know is, they’re going to think about money every day until they die,” says John Pelletier, director of the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College and the report’s author. “Pretty much everyone is going to have to think about money: how to earn it, how to spend it, how to save it.”
And, says Pelletier, teaching financial literacy to students in a setting like Finance Park, is much more likely to stick. “Finance Park is considered one of the best in the country. What they’ve done there is very impressive. It’s a great facility and I think something like that, those sorts of hands-on, experiential learning opportunities for students, it’s a lot better than having some guy from a bank come in and talk to kids in middle school.”
An Eye-Opening Day
Back at Finance Park, the students seem to agree.
“It’s really fun. It’s really cool to step into an adult’s shoes and understand all the finances and have a cool simulation of how it will be,” says Shaheera Kamin, a 13-year-old eighth grader at Frost Middle School. She spent the day as a 22-year-old single accountant raising a 2-year-old child. Salary: $98,000.
Her fellow student, Oscar Persky, 13, spent the day as a 28-year-old designer, also single and raising a 6-year-old child. Salary: $48,000.
His take on the day?
“I thought when it came time to pay my bills when I was an adult, all I’d have to say is, ‘I want this car, I want this thing and I want this house,’ and it’d be like that, but you have to account for taxes and if you have a spouse or kids, so I didn’t realize how hard that was going to be.”
Both agree the cost of, well, lots of things, were surprising.
Says Persky: “I didn’t realize how much transportation costs. You have to decide whether you want public transportation and I don’t know how I’m going to decide between buying a car and public transportation, and then you have to account for if you have a spouse and if you have kids and I don’t know how I’m going to get my child to elementary school.”
Adds Kamin: “Day care is really, really expensive. It can get up to $1,000 a month and I have a 2-year-old child, so I’m going to be paying that for a long time.”
For Persky and Kamin, and the thousands of eighth graders that go through Finance Park’s doors each year, it’s just the first stop on their financial literacy journey in school. But it’s clear the lesson has already made an impact.
“Knowing all the different places your money is going to, not just a house and a car,” was a surprise, says Kamin. “There are so many more things than that.”
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