Financial Education Wows Washington-area Middle Schoolers

The Fairfax School District and Junior Achievement have teamed up for the last two years to find a solution for one of the nation’s greatest problems: young people who come into adulthood with no real idea how to manage money. The Washington Post’s Ovetta Wiggins reports that the program not only seems successful in teaching basic money management, but that it’s also very popular with local 8th graders in spite of the course’s academic rigor.

While most of the students come from middle schools in Fairfax County, 8th graders from nearby communities like Arlington in Virginia and Prince George’s in Maryland can also participate in the Alexandria-based program. It begins with a five-week curriculum taught in math and social studies classes in their home schools. Here they learn the basics of personal finance: saving and investing, interest and credit, and the difference between gross and net income.

Students are assigned fictitious profiles that tell whether they are married or single, provide a family size, and assign income. Classroom exercises are based on this information for each student.

But the really fun phase comes when they arrive at Junior Achievement’s Finance Park, where a building on the campus shared by Frost Middle School and Woodson High School has been turned into a miniature mall. Each store front is managed by a business partnering with Junior Achievement. Students spend one day as shoppers and consumers. They have to plan major purchases like cars, home mortgages, and insurance packages.

It’s clearly a program that interests real-world commercial interests. Capital One Bank funded the Finance Park building in Fairfax County, and it has committed $2.5 million to build a second educational mall in Landover, MD. The businesses that operate store fronts in the malls are local and national companies that gain name recognition with future consumers.

For the 8th graders, it’s like a giant board game. From the adults’ perspective, that’s not all bad.

“Yes, the game of life,” commented Edward J. Grenier III, president and chief executive officer of Junior Achievement of Greater Washington. If the students can retain what they’ve learned here, it could be revolutionary.

“We have a unique opportunity to change a culture,” said Lateefah Durant, an academic officer in Prince George’s County, during a recent presentation to the Board of Education. “As a county, as a state and as a nation we know the result of making poor financial decisions.”

Prince George’s, which has the highest number of foreclosed homes in the state of Maryland, looks forward to increasing their pupil participation with a new campus. School board member Perry Higgins expressed a hope that the effect would go beyond the 8th grade.

“What this does is not only help students, but our county,” Higgins said. “It shows the importance of . . . learning how to handle money.”

The new Junior Achievement campus is scheduled to open in 2014.