Personal Finance

Life Skills 101 gets a high grade

Trying to win over a high school senior to pay attention to the finer points of scouring for a mortgage, applying for a credit card, and writing a compelling job resume and cover letter is no easy task.

Trying to win over 500 of them during the school year really sounds like a long shot.

But those are the marching orders for Michael Hagerty and two other teachers at Blue Springs High School. They teach a class on personal finance, or what Hagerty calls “Life Skills 101,” where the curriculum revolves around money management and career planning, and the classroom conversations cover compound interest, paying yourself first and being wary of too-good-to-be-true deals.

Add some videos, role-playing exercises and pop quizzes with candy prizes for the correct answers and the teaching really kicks into overdrive.

No doubt, it’s the sort of class that many of the students’ parents wish they had in high school. Count me in that group.

“It’s a reality check,” said Emily Ackley, a student in Hagerty’s class. “This is stuff you’ll definitely have to learn after high school.”

The Blue Springs instructors and students are on the front lines of a 3-year-old mandate requiring all high school students in Missouri public schools to earn passing grades in a semester-long personal finance class as a graduation requirement. At Blue Springs High, the class is taught in the senior year.

Nationally, most states, including Kansas, have enacted laws or standards governing personal finance or economics education in public schools, although only a small number have requirements similar to Missouri.

Hagerty, whose passion for teaching personal finance comes from nearly 20 years of classroom experience, said senior year is a pivotal time for teens to learn to handle money wisely. They’ll soon be graduating and either going on to college or landing jobs. Most of them already have some disposable income and use debit cards. A few have credit cards.

“The majority of the kids see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Hagerty said, “and for them this class is applicable.”

Take earlier this month when the topic was identity theft. A few years ago, said Hagerty, any discussion about identity theft would have started and ended with check fraud. Now the Internet can lead to all sorts of personal information mayhem, and unsuspecting teens are prime targets.

Teaching the class that day were Roxanne Doss and Jeannine Ross, two guest instructors from CommunityAmerica Credit Union, which has partnered with the Blue Springs school for several years to shape its personal finance curriculum. Doss is an Internet fraud specialist, and Ross works in loan processing.

Together they offered advice on the many small steps teens can take to avoid falling prey to identity thieves: Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Don’t just tear up monthly bank statements — purchase and use a cross-cut paper shredder instead. Don’t use the same password for logging on to various websites. And keep security in mind when purchasing smartphones.

“Apple iPhones are much safer than Androids,” said Doss.

They also talked about bigger issues, including identifying online job and investment scams, using safe and secure shopping websites, and recognizing the possibility for what Doss called “friendly fraud,” where a family member or even a roommate steals your personal information.

These types of conversations are all part of the class mission — to provide practical information as teens leave high school and become more financially independent from their parents.

What did the students learned this semester?

“Which credit cards are best,” said Mallory Meyer.

“All the little things you have to think about when buying a car, and how much insurance you’ll have to pay,” said Emma Plecas.

“Housing and the types of loans,” said Tyler Hardwick.

There was one other takeaway made plain by Hardwick — confidence.

“It makes you feel like you’ll make the right decisions.”