Locals bring financial literacy to schools
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Larry Hendrickson’s big idea started the way a lot of big ideas do in the Vail Valley – with a conversation on a chairlift. Three years later, hundreds of local kids are learning about financial literacy because of that conversation.
Hendrickson helped start a Junior Achievement program for local students after a chat with Walter Lowenstein that went something like this:
Hendrickson: “I’m not happy that voters keep buying economic nonsense from politicians.”
Lowenstein: “Well, why don’t you do something about it.”
Hendrickson started thinking about how to help people understand more about the basics of economics and finance and discovered Junior Achievement. That national nonprofit group puts volunteers from the business community into schools to talk about topics that range from how to handle consumer credit to the ups and downs of starting a small business.
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Hendrickson – who splits his time between Vail and Santa Fe, N.M. – started rounding up volunteers and talking to Eagle County School District administrators, including Superintendent Sandra Smyser.
“That was one of the toughest interviews I’ve ever had,” Hendrickson said. “She wanted to know everything about the program.”
Last school year, those volunteers brought Junior Achievement programs to several local public and private high schools. This year, Hendrickson hopes the program can reach 500 kids or more.
Brandon Montag, a financial adviser and insurance broker in Eagle, was one of those volunteers. Montag, an Eagle Valley High School graduate – first taught Junior Achievement classes in Durango, and was happy to help here, too.
“You get materials from the Denver office – it’s pretty comprehensive,” Montag said.
But, Montag said, he uses much of his own experience when he conducts a class, talking about ethics and, sometimes, backing up his points with cash.
And it’s never too early to start teaching kids about how money works.
“Junior Achievement can start in kindergarten,” he said. “If they start in high school, it can already be too late. By the time a kid graduates from college, they can be way behind.”
In Durango, school administrators believed in the Junior Achievement model to the point of making it a requirement for the entire junior class.
And, Montag said, it’s not just the kids who benefit.
“By the time I got done with the class, I had parents telling me they’ve never talked to their kids about any of this, and how much they learned.”
In Montag’s mind, the biggest lesson for kids is how interest works.
“Someone who’s 18 can invest $5,000 a year for five years, stop, and still retire at 67 with the same amount of money as someone in their 30s who invested $15,000 a year for 30 years,” he said. “That’s powerful.”
Kris Wittenberg of Eagle’s SayNoMore! Promotions has gotten involved in the program this year, thanks to Kevin Armitage of Colorado Business Bank.
“I hate speaking in public,” Wittenberg said. “But I went with Kevin a couple of days and really liked it.”
Wittenberg’s been impressed with the Junior Achievement model, not only for its focus on financial literacy, but how it stresses simple things kids just entering the workforce need to know.
“It’s things like showing up on time, honoring your commitments – going into the world in a way that isn’t being taught in schools.”
And teaching finance and preparing to work are things that can be hard for school systems to fund.
Montag, who helped start a foundation for Eagle Valley High School last year, said financial restrictions are going to make programs like Junior Achievement ever-more important for schools.
“We can’t just leave it up to school districts,” he said. “We can’t just complain.”
While Junior Achievement is free to schools, teachers have to ask for the programs, so local program backers are working now to get out the word.
Wittenberg said the local group is also looking for corporate sponsors to help pay for class materials.
While the local Junior Achievement program is still in its infancy, Hendrickson believes it’s off to a good start.
“We’re off and running,” he said. “And every teacher who’s listened to us has said, ‘I’ve really learned a lot, too.'”
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or email@example.com.