In the current economic downturn, many American schools are adding a new subject to the curriculum; financial literacy. One program in Virginia even gets students out of the classroom for a day to learn how far their money will go in the real world.
What looks like a shopping mall is actually an educational field trip experience for a group of young people. Finance Park is a special facility where students apply what they have been taught in class about money management.
“They become, essentially, adults for the day,” says Alice Reilly, social studies coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools. “They are asked to develop a budget for 18 line items that you and I might have in our budget; things like utilities, insurance, groceries, housing.”
Each budget item is represented by a storefront where students collect an option sheet. Students must refer to a card that shows their income and their family size, when they choose what to buy. There’s also a stock ticker so students can keep track of shares in their portfolios.
The facility opened last year in Fairfax, Virginia. It is the fifteenth Finance Park built in the last decade by Junior Achievement USA, a non-profit organization dedicated to preparing young people for financial success.
“Since the financial crisis, the demand for Finance Parks around the country has grown exponentially," says Ed Grenier, president of the Washington, DC chapter. "We have a number under way in the planning and building stages.”
Financial literacy has only recently become part of the regular curriculum in Fairfax County.
“Some students, some teachers, some schools did it, but now it is much more systematic," Reilly says, "and it is much more consistent to ensure that all students get this background information.”
That is why every eighth grade student in Fairfax County will eventually spend a day here.
Thirteen-year-old Sam says she has learned an important life lesson. “I didn’t know how expensive everything would be.”
Anthony, also 13, is looking forward to telling his parents what he learned. “I’ll probably tell them I want to stay a kid a little longer and take my time to become an adult.”
This isn’t the end of financial studies for Anthony and the other students here. Virginia is one of 13 states which requires students to take a financial education class in high school in order to graduate.