Nina Smith, a 16-year-old student at Parkdale High School, spent the summer learning all the tips on how to handle money. Tip one: Count it accurately. Tip two: Save it wisely. Tip three: No jokes when giving it away.
“The first time I held a wad of cash, it was so exciting,” she said, recalling when she thumbed through $10,000 — none of it her own.
Smith and nine other rising seniors at the Riverdale school worked for three weeks during summer vacation as tellers at local Capital One banks, training for a program considered unusual in the Washington area and the first of its kind in Prince George’s County. Their free periods at school will be spent as bankers at a new branch inside the high school.
Yes, an actual, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.-insured, for-profit bank operating in a high school. It will disburse loans. There will be deposit slips, a security camera and even a vault to store the cash.
As educators across the nation are struggling to squeeze financial literacy lessons into a crowded school day, some hope the presence of financial institutions on campuses will raise students’ interest in interest rates.
During the past decade, the National Credit Union Administration has tracked the steady increase of nonprofit credit unions in schools nationwide to 355, including some in Montgomery County and Alexandria. In recent years, after a push from the federal government and an easing of banking regulations, their for-profit counterparts also have placed satellite institutions in high schools serving neighborhoods that often have a dearth of traditional banking services.
“This is our market, and we’re interested in helping with financial growth,” said Denise L. Pope, a regional executive vice president for Capital One. “And there’s a lot of excitement about this project and making sure students have financial literacy. All you have to do is look at the headlines to find out why it’s important.”
According to research from the Urban Institute, Parkdale students go to school in a Zip code where one in 10 homeowners is 90 days behind on paying a mortgage, one of the highest such rates in the state. They live in a state where federal data show one in five Hispanics and one in 10 black residents don’t have checking or savings accounts. And, of course, they live in a country where elected representatives are grappling over how to cut public expenses.
For Smith, larger economic worries seem distant as she prepares to muscle through an ambitious schedule of Advanced Placement classes in the school year that starts Monday. Her biggest immediate financial concern is buying her first car.
Educators and economists have labored since the 2008 financial crisis to figure out how to teach students such as Smith how they fit into the big picture.
In a push for students to become college-ready, concepts such as teaching them about managing credit and the importance of saving had fallen somewhat out of favor. But advocates say the need has never been greater. The independent Web site Finaid.org, analyzing 2008 federal education data, estimated that the average student would graduate from a four-year college with $23,186 in student loan debt.
In 2008, a task force was assembled to create a financial literacy strategy for Maryland. Working with the Take Charge of America Institute at the University of Arizona, it coordinated strategies to embed financial lessons into the core curriculum.
The effort resulted in a mandate that, by this school year, every public school should weave financial education into lessons, starting in the third grade. State officials in Virginia took a different approach. They have mandated a stand-alone financial education class for high schools, despite objections from some parents and educators, starting in September.
Also in 2008, in partnership with the Education Department, the FDIC eliminated a requirement for banks to get explicit approval to set up branches inside schools, a process that sometimes took more than three weeks.
That change fostered a national increase in school bank branches, said Luke Reynolds, the FDIC’s acting community affairs director. Reynolds estimated that there are more than 100 student banks in the United States. Before 2008, he said, there were probably a couple dozen.
Last school year, Capital One approached Parkdale Principal Cheryl Logan about starting a branch at Parkdale, as the bank had done at schools in Newark, Harlem and the Bronx. Logan jumped at the opportunity.
Parkdale, a cavernous building with more than 2,200 students, sits atop a hill on Good Luck Road. More than two-thirds of its students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Fewer than half of its graduates, Logan estimated, went to four-year colleges this fall. She said she thirsted to give students a unique opportunity.
“A lot of these kids don’t come from families that go to the bank,” Logan said. “They will do check-cashing or something else. This bank brings kids into the mainstream. Going to the bank is something that college- and
career-ready people do.”
Parkdale’s branch will be open only to staff and students, three days a week, during lunch periods, with an adult manager overseeing activity. The 10 students selected as bankers applied for the positions with essays and interviews with student leaders. They run the gamut of academic ability, from a top student to one who was suspended last year for fighting.
As part of their training, the bankers are certified to teach fellow students about financial security. They will be paid $11 an hour.
They have already begun planning their financial futures. “I’m saving half of my money,” said Smith, of Landover. “Then I can use it to buy the car.”
The students are also learning about national financial issues. During a training trip to New York, the students visited a Federal Reserve bank, where someone explained the significance of the debt ceiling and the recent decision by Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the country’s credit rating.
“Credit can be such a dangerous thing if you buy what you can’t afford,” said Bladimir Martinez, 16, of Riverdale. “Now I really feel like I understand it.”