A group of students from West Hartford’s Hall High School are working to make financial literacy a graduation requirement.
By Ronni Newton
Hall High School junior Armani Nieves took Maryanne Taft’s financial literacy course as a freshman, and said he learned so much valuable information about banking, credit cards, students loans, and more.
“It definitely piqued my interest” in business, said Nieves, who is now president of Hall’s business club. But when he was recently in the Center with a friend who didn’t have any idea how to deposit a check, Nieves realized that there are important skills that many kids his age need to learn.
Taft, who has been teaching business at Hall for 10 years, said she has tried to raise the profile of the financial literacy course, especially after a survey of Hall juniors showed that only 50 percent were financially literate.
“At age 18 they’re taking out student loans. They are responsible for thousands of dollars of debt,” Taft said. Many graduate from college with credit card balances in the thousands, and it’s no wonder they become part of the “boomerang generation,” said Taft.
Finances are the leading reason why students drop out of college, and Taft said many universities are now incorporating financial literacy into orientation programs for all students, regardless of intended major since it’s a skill all adults need to have.
After the experience with his friend, Nieves came up with the idea of launching a “grassroots effort” to make financial literacy a mandate. His sister Lexi, and and fellow business club members, brothers Colin and Brendan Horan, have so far gotten more than 600 signatures on a petition to make the course a graduation requirement in West Hartford.
“The number one conflict is scheduling,” Taft said, with so many students taking music, art, and multiple AP courses. If the course, which is currently one-semester in length, would become a requirement there would have to be a way to fit it into the schedule.
“I strongly feel that financial literacy is important for all of the students in the district. It’s a fantastic opportunity for all students,” said Department Supervisor for Consumer and Technical Education Brian Cohen.
Cohen is a huge proponent of the financial literacy course, and originated it in the district years ago. However, he said the district doesn’t want to just “throw another requirement at our students.”
Cohen said he will continue to look toward where such a course may fit into the curriculum, and that includes doing some education at the middle school, or even elementary school level. “We want to offer a program that they can really take to heart.”
It’s important to develop fiscal strategies to be a consumer in this country, Cohen said, and there aren’t enough conversations about finance taking place at home. The feedback from students who have taken the course is that it has been very valuable.
Director of Secondary Education Paul Vicinus, who will take over as assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment on July 1, said he applauded the students for their interest, and hopes that initially their actions lead to more registrations for the course.
Currently, Vicinus said, Conard has 82 students enrolled in financial literacy and there are 45 enrolled at Hall. Course selection for 2016-17 is still in progress, and as of now there are 73 requests for the course at Hall and 67 at Conard. The course is open to students at all grade levels, but most commonly selected by juniors and seniors, he said.
Vicinus said that individual districts can set graduation requirements that are more stringent that what the state requires, but right now West Hartford is watching what the legislature is doing with three different sets of requirements. Required credits will increase from 21 to 25 for the class of 2020 (current eighth grade) and the distribution of those credits will become more specific for the class of 2021, he said, and a graduation requirements committee has just published a report for the legislature.
For now, Vicinus said there may be a different means to deliver instruction on financial literacy, perhaps through advisory sessions.
“There’s so much swirling around with our graduation requirements that we’re trying to see where the state is going to land,” Vicinus said.
In addition, Vicinus said that the current eight-period day leaves little room for additional requirements because most students currently have the opportunity for just one elective per semester. “It really becomes about choice for the kids, and making it a requirement is more than about saying you’ve got to take it.”
Under the current scheduling format, adding sections of financial literacy would likely not impact overall staffing but would rearrange staffing for other areas since there would be fewer students in other courses.
Nieves said he has gained the support of Hall Principal Dan Zittoun, and will present his ideas to the Hall PTO. He has also gotten positive feedback from a post on the West Hartford “Neighbors and Friends” Facebook page. Conard senior Daniel Castillo is also collecting signatures and working to raise awareness of the idea at Conard, Nieves said.
The main goal, Taft and Nieves said, is to educate as many students as possible about banking, credit, student loans, retirement investing, budgeting, and insurance. They would like to see the course become a high school graduation requirement for the current class of seventh graders (class of 2021), since there will be time to implement it before they begin high school.
Cohen is happy that the efforts have started a real “groundswell about a curriculum that we’ve had in place that has been hard to promote.”
“We’ll see where this goes. I am very excited,” Cohen said.
Vicinus agreed. “Interest in it from the students’ end is refreshing,” he said. “We have to be really thougtful about the whole idea, but I think it’s great that students are bringing the importance of financial literacy to the forefront and recognizing that this is an important topic. I hope that excitement and interest can be sustained,” he said.
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