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Dozens of states pushing to add financial literacy classes for high schoolers

financial literacy schools
Posted at 9:25 AM, Jun 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-25 12:29:12-04

DENVER, Colo. — After the pandemic put so many families in tough situations financially, communities started calling for more financial education for high schoolers.

This year, more than two dozen states across the country introduced legislation to mandate those classes.

In Denver, Colorado, one school was fighting for this change even before the state legislature took it up.

Daniel Walter is a Social Studies teacher at West High School, and for a few weeks each semester, he would teach his students about personal finance.

“That week or two that we did personal finance, the kids' ears perked up and they were like asking a lot more questions than any other unit during the course of the semester,” said Walter, who attended Denver Public Schools himself. “We knew we were on to something.”

With the input from families, school leadership, and DPS alumni, Walter is now working on the curriculum for the school’s very first full semester-long personal finance class. Based on how his students who have already taken his short course reacted, he’s thrilled to be able to expand this learning even more.

“It's cool to see 18-year-olds care about their credit score and which credit card they should open when I didn't even think about this until 25,” said Walter. “I wish I could have hit the reset button.”

He’s hoping with the right tools, his students won’t feel that way, too.

“I've lived through a lot of these things that we know, we're encouraging them not to do like know more about your credit score and be more careful with credit cards,” said Walter, hoping that speaking of his own personal journey to financial literacy will help students feel empowered to take control of their futures.

“It really takes a village, I think, to be good at personal finance, and just my mom trying to teach me just wasn't enough,” said Walter of the importance of mandated classes.

“I think when you have it as a requirement in a school, then you're creating that village.”

The principal of West High School, Mia Martinez Lopez, is part of that village. She helped collect data from students and parents about what families want their kids to know.

“The call for this class really came from the voices of our families, specifically our Black families,” said Martinez Lopez. “Traditionally in schools, the power dynamic has been, you know, the school tells the families what we're going to do, and we've really shifted that to make sure that the families let us know what they need.”

TeRay Esquibel, the co-founder and executive director of the Denver Public Schools Alumni Collective, was also part of the effort to get these ideas made into the curriculum.

“If you have access to information, you're better able to make decisions,” said Esquibel. “I think for so long, a lot of these tools were kind of hidden from us, so my biggest hope with this is that maybe we could just close the understanding gap. I think there's a lot of other underlying issues that we need to address before we close these types of gaps, but at the bare minimum, we should at least be working with the same set of information. I think it's one small step towards gaining that equity that we're seeking.”

Senior Isaiah Phorson said his mom never learned financial literacy in school, so she encouraged him to sign up for Mr. Walter’s class.

“She went to college and she got a degree, but she didn't know how to manage her money well,” said Phorson. “She’d make a decent amount from work, but it would all go to bills, or will you know, we just really couldn’t stretch it as far as we should have. She wanted me to really take these financial literacy classes to learn how to manage my money well.”

And now, he will have those skills for the rest of his life.

Colorado’s bill to mandate students learn these skills is still waiting to be signed by Gov. Jared Polis, but these school leaders said they will continue to create these classes regardless.

The pandemic showed this school how much students and families need tools and resources to financially prepare for an emergency.

“A lot of our students were being pulled away from remote coursework to help their families, you know, to work full time or part-time. We have a pretty highly impacted community here," said Martinez Lopez.

“They see firsthand a lifestyle that is not one you see on movies or tv or Instagram, but it's one of very real daily struggles,” said Walter. “And when you suddenly start talking about how investing now can change your future, they become really in tune with how beneficial this is."

Mr. Walter’s personal finance class gave recent high school graduate, Vitoria Ybarra, the resources to start planning to buy a home.

“I look up to my older siblings a lot, and my brother was able to buy his house when he was 24,” said Ybarra. “They showed me that it's possible, but they didn't really explain how to get there."

Now, she said with what she’s learned with Mr. Walter, she’s confident she’ll soon have a home of her own.

Phorson is excited for his peers this upcoming year when this once two-week financial literacy course becomes a semester-long focus.

“Having these financial literacy classes is giving us a step ahead in the economic battle,” said Phorson. “It's crucial to how comfortable you’ll be in a society, how much money you’ll make, the type of family you can have, the opportunities and doors that will be open for you.”

In order for the generations of the future to cash out big time, an investment has to be made today. Mr. Walter stands ready to lead the charge.

“We are probably in for a two or three-generation struggle,” he said. “It's going to take a long time to create the country and the society that we, the people deserve and that people want to see, and so dig in. We've only just begun.”