Classroom of the Week | Personal finance class at Lee Middle and High School a sound investment for the future


LEE — This fall, Tom McCormack had seniors in his classroom at Lee Middle and High School who could make the honor roll, lead sports and community activities, and are all planning to graduate with colleges and careers in mind. But, many of them have been struggling to figure out how to do their own taxes, shop for an insurance plan and prepare for managing a student loan.

Now, they have a bit more confidence and many more skills to help them figure it out, thanks to a personal finance elective that returned to the math department roster this year after a four-year hiatus.

McCormack is a middle and high school math teacher at the school but has been teaching the elective on and off since 2009, as an evolved version of his accounting class. In his earlier career years, McCormack worked in finance firms in metro markets and saw firsthand how a person's level of financial literacy could help or hurt them. 

"The bottom line: These kids need to know the real basics when it comes to financial planning," McCormack said.

In his course, McCormack covers investing for retirement; the ins and outs of credit cards and building a healthy credit score; loans and mortgages; investing in the stock market and practicing through building and managing a mock portfolio. He also invites his students to bring in real life financial issues being experienced by them, their friends or family, so they can have a class discussion about how one might address such issues, and what resources are available to help.

Last month, we caught up with McCormack and some of his recent personal finance class members Michelle Desiata, Shane Cloutier, Colin Finnegan, Sophie Burnell and Alex Simmons, to talk about their experiences. After hearing about their progress, we decided to recognize them as a "Classroom of the Week."

"A lot of 17- to 18-year-olds don't really think about this," said Desiata. "But in the future, you have to deal with money."

Desiata, like some of her classmates, has a part-time job. In addition to a paycheck, her company, Nine West, offered her the opportunity to start a 401k

"It's nice having the knowledge of all things financial, especially as you're going off in the world on your own," said Cloutier.

Burnell characterized the content of the class as "both academic and fun" and said that it helps give students "a view into our future."

As a teacher, McCormack said that he can't expect that all students are having equal levels of financial conversations at home among their families, and said that the class is also designed to help level the playing field.

Finnegan feels that more students could benefit from an in-school personal finance course for this very reason. "The way family structures are today, it can be hard for kids. A lot of them don't have families they can turn to for guided structure and information," he said.

McCormack, in addition to implementing state standards, integrates lessons from the free High School Financial Planning Program curriculum created by the National Endowment for Financial Education. He requires students to read the bestseller, "The Automatic Millionaire: A Powerful One-Step Plan to Live and Finish Rich,' by David Bach, which, title aside, focuses on practical steps to take over time to plan and save and streamline a personal budget. The class uses financial education materials provided by Lee Bank; websites like,, and, among others. Students also watch documentaries like PBS Frontline's "The Retirement Gamble," about the exploitation and protection of consumer savings, and a dive into the national debt crisis called, "Ten Trillion and Counting." McCormack also screens the Michael Moore's satirical "Sicko," a cautionary film on the cost conundrums relative to health insurance and pharmaceuticals in the United States.

"I try to give them a variety of resources so they understand there's not just one place to go for information," McCormack said.

The teacher said that because there are so many online calculators, tools, and other free and accessible services available to people, his personal finance class focuses less on the math and more on the concepts and teaching young people to critically think about their financial futures.

"It's such an enjoyable class to teach," he said. "You have really book-smart kids in it, then you also have kids who might not be academically strong but they bring a lot more experience, street smarts and perspective to the class."

Thus, the lessons tend to resonate differently for each individual. Desiata, for example, said she was particularly interested in how to make smart investments, while Finnegan said he benefited from the conversations about saving early for retirement and other long-term expenses, as well as being alerted to the way high interest rates can sneak up on a credit card user.

"I've learned to always be aware of what you're paying for," said Burnell, who now scrutinizes receipts and statements. "If you're paying a fee for something you do not believe is fair, fight for it."

As for Simmons, he says that the idea of taking on student loan debt is overwhelming. "To know that 20 years from now you could still be paying it off is terrifying," he said. "So learning about that beforehand is very important."

While everyone in this group felt that personal finance courses should be mandatory in every high school, McCormack noted that it's not always feasible to do so and still meet state math requirements that students are tested on. Scheduling and funding for resources, as well as teacher training are all prohibitive factors. If he had more class time to do so, McCormack said he would like to see multiple sections offered, and a full-year program during which he could delve more into student and auto loans, new investment strategies and the new tax code and tax filing processes. He said he'd also like to have more financial experts come in to share their tips and good information with the students.

"But," said McCormack about what his personal finance students have learned, "I think these guys are in very good shape."


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