By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Junior Achievement teaches financial literacy at new park
Balancing your budget, taking out loans and paying off your debts, earning more money, living within your means –– these are life’s lessons usually associated with “the real world” and not the carefree days of high school. And that is a problem in our educational system that Junior Achievement is trying to fix.
On Oct. 1, Junior Achievement of San Diego County opened the doors to the Mission Fed JA Finance Park, a high-tech financial literacy campus that takes students through a virtual simulator of various career paths and life circumstances to realistically prepare them for the kinds of budget challenges they will face in their college and post-college years.
“What we are trying to do is not only make our students understand the basics of budgeting for a household, but also career exploration and planning,” said Valerie Hash, implementation manager for Finance Park. “We help students look at the roadmap they need to live successfully in San Diego because it is a privilege to live a successful life in San Diego. You really do need to pay attention to your career goals and your finances.”
Students who visit the Finance Park are asked to imagine what their lifestyle is going to be like, what their lifestyle goals are and what kind of jobs they would need to have to reach those goals. “We backwards plan. We look at the goals then look at what jobs are needed to live that lifestyle, then we look at what kind of education is needed to get those jobs,” Hash said.
As a Junior Achievement student ambassador, Bunsee Patel was one of the first students in San Diego to try a beta-test of the program. In his simulation, Patel, a senior at Westview High School in Poway, was a contractor making $50,000 a year and had a credit score of 680.
“I had enough money, but then what you find out is that you can’t get everything that you want. You have to make sacrifices in certain areas,” he said. In that scenario, he discovered the best recreation a person can afford is going to movies because tickets to football games and eating at fancy restaurants were out of the budget. “You can live off the salary, you just have to be really smart about it.”
Besides the salary and credit score, the simulation also takes into account a person’s age, marital status, how many children there are in the family and other factors to calculate budgets for health insurance, car insurance and payments, gas, groceries, taxes, housing payments and college loan payments.
“This is all real stuff,” said Joanne Pastula, president and CEO of Junior Achievement of San Diego County. “[In the simulation], if you are married and you have a couple of kids and are making $70,000 a year, we are going to have the real tax amount that will be taken out show up, as well as the FICO scores and insurances will all be the real costs. We’re giving them the real scoop.”
One of the reasons Finance Park simulations are so accurate is because of the partnerships Junior Achievement cultivated in creating the program. The jobs in the simulators are real San Diego jobs, sponsored by local companies, Pastula said. The companies supply a job description, information on what it takes to get the job, educational requirements and career possibilities. The partnerships also provide funding to Finance Park. The companies pay $4,500 for the job in perpetuity and provide updates to the data as needed.
The cost to build JA Finance Park was close to $5 million and was financed through a capital campaign that included major donors Qualcomm, Laurie McGrath, and Jack McGrory, among others, said Pastula. Mission Federal Credit Union paid $1 million for naming rights to the financial literacy center, which is located at the Sky Blue Capdevilla-Gillespie Center for Junior Achievement located at 4756 Mission Gorge Place. The Finance Park will be the 14th JA park nationwide, but it will be the first paperless facility built by the organization. “This is very high-tech project and that’s not an inexpensive thing to have happen,” Pastula said.
Although expensive, learning centers like the JA Finance Park are becoming a necessity to parents, teachers and students alike. A 2013 study by the Center for Financial Literacy graded California high school students with an ‘F’ for financial literacy. The study concluded that California did not include personal finance topics in the state’s educational standards and there were no requirements for finance topics. Also, Governor Brown vetoed six financial literacy bills from 2006 through 2010.
After the 2013 failing grade, the state changed the law so that now the curriculum for public schools requires personal finance education. Those requirements are set to be implemented for this school year as part of the scheduled education framework revision for history, social science and health courses.
“As a former high school teacher I can definitely attest to the need for programs like this,” Hash said. “A lot of times, parents feel that teachers are supposed to teach financial literacy and teachers feel parents are supposed to teach financial literacy, so there’s really no one doing it.”
Although there has been a push for more financial literacy to be taught in school by parents, teachers and students, the state has been slow to budget money to implement standards for a curriculum, Hash said.
“That’s why our program is so wonderful, we provide teachers with that curriculum component. We provide them with training. We provide them with all the resources they need to feel comfortable teaching these concepts,” she said, adding that teachers who use the program will have access to have volunteers that are CPAs or insurance agents that go out to the schools and help them answer any questions their students might have.
“I feel that it is our volunteer component that sets us apart from other organizations that teach financial literacy,” she said. “We have a program that lets our students have mentorship and they can see a lot of relevancy in what they are taught.”
Predictably, the response by local school districts throughout the county has been positive and there have been a lot of teachers asking about the program, Hash said. Finance Park grew out of Junior Achievement’s extremely popular educational program called Biztown that teaches financial concepts to fifth-graders and Hash expects the new program to mirror its success.
“Biztown has been open since 2006 and we have a very long waiting list. We have schools that wait for years to get into Biztown. We know the same thing will happen for Finance Park,” she said. “Within the next few years it will be absolutely filled up.”
For students whose schools end up on the waiting list, there are opportunities to visit Finance Park outside of school. There will be a component called JA for Everyone where the park will be open after hours and on some weekends, Hash said. The program will open up Finance Park for families and other organizations –– military, immigrant groups, college students –– to come in with the whole family and go through the simulation and learn about family budgets and open up a much-needed conversation between students and their families on how finances work.
According to a recent survey by Junior Achievement USA, 48 percent of students believed that their parents were going to help pay for college. However, only 16 percent of the parents of the same students said they were going to pay for college. “There is obviously not a conversation being had, so we figured if parents come in with their students and go through the simulation with them, they can start talking about it,” Hash said.
For students like Patel, whose parents often share conversations about the family budget, going through the program was still a useful educational tool.
“Even with that knowledge that my parents have taught me so far, there are still gaps in my knowledge that this program covers that I was not expecting,” he said. “I can imagine that for kids who do not have these kinds of talks with their parents, it will be tremendously beneficial to them. There are a lot of things you don’t learn in school about the real world.”
–Write to Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.