As she punched numbers into a calculator, Luka Fernandez had a lot to figure out. How much could she afford to pay for a car? Should she buy cable? Where should she live?
These are the types of questions facing many adults as they try to manage a household budget.
But Luka isn’t an adult, she’s a 14-year-old pretending to be one as part of a reality-based financial literacy exercise at the Junior Achievement Finance Park in Fairfax County.
“I don’t know how much my parents spend, but I know they pay more for stuff like groceries,” said Luka, an eighth-grader at Holmes Middle School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County.
Bryan Lee, who also attends Holmes, said he never thought about how much his mother paid for cable, water and groceries until he participated in the financial literacy class.
Fernandez and Lee are among 14,000 eighth-grade students in the Washington region each year who spend a day of school visiting the finance park, making real-life decisions about health care, housing, investments and banking. Most of the students who participate — 13,000 — are from Fairfax County, with the rest coming from Alexandria, Arlington, the District and Prince George’s County.
The students attend the finance park, which sits on the campus of Robert Frost Middle School and W.T. Woodson High School, after spending five weeks learning about interest and credit; the risks and benefits of saving and investing; the difference between gross and net monthly income and other aspects of financial literacy during math and social studies classes.
They move about the building, which is set up like an enclosed shopping mall, going to storefronts of businesses that are Junior Achievement partners. For example, the students decide which type of car and home insurance plans to purchase at Wells Fargo, the kind of house to purchase at Clark Construction, and telephone and cable packages at Verizon.
Each student is given a profile (married or single, family size and annual salary) when they enter the program. Megan Ibbotson, the eighth-grade school counselor at Holmes, said she was thrilled to see how immersed the students became in their roles as they tried to balance their budgets.
“They feel like they are playing a game,” Ibbotson said, noting that financial literacy is a high school graduation requirement in Virginia.
“Yes, the game of life,” said Edward J. Grenier III, president and chief executive officer of Junior Achievement of Greater Washington.
Now after running the program in Fairfax for about two years, Junior Achievement has plans to partner with public schools in Prince George’s County to offer a similar curriculum. Capital One Bank is also joining the venture and plans to provide $2.5 million to build a 14,000-square-foot building near the G. James Gholson Middle School in Landover, the second Junior Achievement campus in the region. Capital One also paid for the building in Fairfax.
The new finance park is scheduled to open for the 2014 school year.
“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.”
Grenier, who got the program off the ground in Prince George’s about three years ago after meeting with former superintendent William R. Hite, said teaching the ins and outs of managing money is “a pretty powerful gift to give to a young person.”
School board member Peggy Higgins (District 2) said the program probably will have a positive effect in Prince George’s, which has Maryland’s highest number of foreclosed homes.
“What this does is not only help students, but our county,” Higgins said. “It shows the importance of . . . learning how to handle money.”