Hartford pupils get lessons in financial literacy

BY Gregory Seay

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Bulkeley High School seniors Emeli Bueno (left) and Yashoda Mohan took part in a recent Financial Reality Fair at the school in Hartford’s South End.
With budget worksheets in hand, Emeli Bueno and Yashoda Mohan, seniors at Hartford's Bulkeley High School, realized expenses were quickly eating up their make-believe salaries.

Transportation. Housing. Food. Even costs for incidentals, like cellphone and cable-TV service, and money for nightlife, were adding up stunningly. Their solution: Share an apartment. Buddies, the two say they may actually someday move in together after college.

Bueno and Mohan were among some 150 Bulkelely seniors who participated in an April 28 Financial Reality Fair at the South End school. It is part of a financial-literary wave trending in classrooms across Connecticut and the U.S., educating pre-college teens how to manage, spend and save money.

It's a trend supported not just by Greater Hartford area educators, but also financial institutions like the Credit Union League of Connecticut and public policymakers, who see opportunity to head off a litany of personal and social ills by teaching individuals as early possible to responsibly manage savings and spending. Students, too, are on board. Some even say financial literacy courses should be a condition for graduation.

"I really need to learn how to control myself … to buy the cheapest things,'' said Bueno, 18, who plans to pursue a social-work degree at Capital Community College. "I really like that we're doing this.''

Mohan, 18, is headed to UConn to study psychology. Her opinion after undergoing the routine of touring and applying to various colleges: "It's not easy going to college.''

Bulkelely was Hartford Public Schools' choice to host this year's literacy fair, which was co-sponsored by the Credit Union League of Connecticut.

Charlene Perez Diaz is the school systems' community partnerships manager and was a proctor for the event.

"When they approached us to provide this, we jumped on this,'' said Perez Diaz, a Bulkeley alum (Class of '97). "It's so important.''

The Center for Financial Literacy at Vermont's Champlain College certainly agrees. Last December, the Center gave Connecticut an "F," listing it among 11 states with the worst financial literacy in their public high schools. The failing grade is reserved for states that do not require a financial literacy course to graduate.

However, the Connecticut Department of Education, responding to a 2015 state law, makes available to interested school systems grants and other support to implement literacy curricula, said spokesman Peter Yazbak. Avon, Bristol, Glastonbury, East Granby, Granby, East Windsor, Ellington, Enfield, New Britain, Plainville, Simsbury, Suffield, Windsor and Vernon were among Greater Hartford school systems with financial literacy courses as of the 2015-16 school term, department data shows.

West Hartford's Conard and Hall high schools have offered elective financial-literacy courses for several years to pupils in grades 9-12, said Maryanne Taft, one of three business-finance instructors in the West Hartford school system. This was the first year an advanced financial investment course was offered, she said.

"The response has been very good,'' Taft said of student enrollment and their eagerness to hone their financial ABCs. "They have a pretty good idea how to manage their money.''

As for whether passing a financial-literacy class should be required to graduate: "Absolutely,'' Taft said. "Kids are signing on the dotted line, not understanding what they're getting into. They could be running themselves into a ditch even before they're out of high school.''

Financial institutions look forward to the day when many of Connecticut's high school and college graduates come to them for their checking, savings and credit needs. The more knowledgeable — and comfortable — those customers are with finance, the better for everyone, they say.

Financial literacy fairs provide students with a controlled exercise where they "can fail'' in their money-management choices and learn from the experience, said Marco Signorello, CEO of Cencap Federal Credit Union, with offices in Hartford's South and North ends.

Signorello and some Cencap staffers, along with other companies and organizations, volunteered as finance "counselors'' to assist students with understanding the ramifications of their savings and spending choices and to offer them better options.

Of course, it was also an opportunity to expose Cencap to a fresh corps of potential members, but Signorello said there was more at stake.

"It's not about the membership growth,'' he said. "It's about the education."