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An Investment In Education

Connor Tarr, left, Oluwole Ajagbe and Alex Lugo, all 17, are students in the investment class.
Connor Tarr, left, Oluwole Ajagbe and Alex Lugo, all 17, are students in the investment class. (Katherine Frey - Twp)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A team of investors at Gaithersburg High School bought 1,000 shares of JCPenney at $71, panicked when it dipped below $70 and sold when it inched back to $71, making nothing. Now the stock is trading around $80, and the students are kicking themselves.

Those were illusory shares bought with pretend money. But the stakes are about to rise. School officials said Monday that the 18-student investment class will soon be making decisions with $25,000 in cold, hard cash.

A trading room for Gaithersburg students opened Monday in a ceremony led by Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, who said it was the first of its kind in the country. The classroom is outfitted with a data board, an electronic ticker, an LCD television screen piping financial news to the young traders -- and thanks to an anonymous donor, a five-figure bank account with which to work.

"It's kind of like the real world instead of just a classroom environment," said Stephanie Williams, 16, a junior in the student-managed class.

With the introduction of the course this fall, Gaithersburg became one of a small number of schools in the nation devoting an entire seminar to investing, a topic more commonly taught as part of an economics or financial planning class.

The most intriguing part, financial educators say, is that students will invest real money.

"You have to have real money involved in order to get the students to take it seriously," said Scott Hoover, adviser to the student investment club at Washington and Lee University. "If you can get the students to take it seriously, they can do wonders."

At Washington and Lee, one of a growing number of universities that give students real dollars to invest, the club has $1.6 million at its disposal and has performed as well as the best professionals, Hoover said.

Ron Dietz, a Gaithersburg High teacher, hopes the infusion of cash will similarly inspire his students, who, after several weeks of daily classes, now probably know more about securities than most adults.

"I think it will definitely make them more cautious of their picks," Dietz said.

As if to underscore the point, Weast pointedly asked some of Dietz's students how they would invest their grandmother's money.

"Government bonds," one replied, prompting laughter.

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