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Credit Unions spark new finance curriculums

The Bobcat Student Credit Union sign.

As the nation's foreclosure rates spiked last year and more people turned to charity just to get by, it became clear to many that a lot of Americans haven't had a good handle on their finances. Some see the recession as an opportunity to change the way young people learn about money. CMS just opened up a new student-run credit union at Garinger High School last month. A similar program in Forsythe County is entering in its third year. It's 11:30 AM and business teacher Glenda Head is walking to the lunchroom at R.B. Glenn High School in Kernersville, near Winston-Salem. Once there, she helps two of her students open the school's branch of Allegacy Federal Credit Union. "They have to sign into a safe log where we sign in and out every day," Head explains. "So the beginning balance and the ending balance is confirmed." After about 10 minutes, the day's first customer, Jasmine, approaches the counter. "I'm withdrawing money from my account," she says. "Ten dollars to be exact. Make that $15!"This is one of four student-staffed Allegacy branches at high schools in the Winston-Salem area. This branch is open at lunch three days a week. Seventeen-year-old Austin Dodd is one of two tellers on duty. "I'm actually saving up money now," Dodd says. "And if I wouldn't have got into this, I'd probably be spending my money as soon as I'd get it. It's helped me out and I will have saved up a lot more money later on." Allegacy first developed the project in 2008. Yes, there's a pipeline of new customers. But Belinda Wilson, the non-profit's Director of Business Development, says it offers a more relevant curriculum and gives kids hands-on experience. Here, learning how to balance a checkbook isn't enough. Instead, these students learn about things like credit scores, the stock market and mortgages. "We teach them how much they need to save to have a down payment for a mortgage," Wilson says. "We teach them the difference between an ARM and a fixed mortgage. We teach them that it's better to do a 15 year vs. a 30-year. The importance of making extra payments each year" Those types of things get covered in the classroom component of the year-long course, which Head teaches. "Today is the due date for the module on credit," Head instructs. "Your EQ is due today. Let's seeYou should have checked your stock prices by now. Both portfolios."Gail Cunningham, a spokeswoman with the Texas-based National Foundation for Credit Counseling, loves the idea. "When you told me of that concept, I almost jumped up and clicked my heals together," she says. "Because it's so clever and it's so simple." Each year, Cunningham's organization serves millions of people who've found themselves in financial hot water. In many cases it's because people just don't understand everyday financial transactions. Mortgages are a great example. "You're shoved a pile of papers that's probably 6 inches high and told sign here," Cunningham says. "We do not read what we're signing. If we read it we wouldn't understand it. There's something wrong there. But the more we can educate young people, the better off we're going to be." Cunningham says the recession has put a spotlight on how little many Americans know about their finances. North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan says financial education in schools has long been overlooked. "I think we have done our students a disservice by not teaching this in our public schools," Hagan says. "This is not rocket science. If you can do algebra, calculus, we can teach financial literacy to our students." The first bill Hagan introduced as a US Senator dealt with financial literacy in schools. She says only three states -Tennessee, Missouri and Utah - currently require a semester-long course on everyday financial literacy. Hagan wants to designate special funding for financial literacy courses. But finding the time to teach more courses would be difficult. Jimmy Chancey is the Director of Career and Technical Education at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He says the high school curriculum in North Carolina is already packed. And getting many teenagers interested in finances they're likely years away from actually needing, can also be difficult. But Chancey says it all raises a good question: What's the role of schools in educating young people about basic life skills? And he says now is a very good time to have that conversation.