Classroom of the Week: Youth Leadership Program participants learn to make sense out of money matters

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PITTSFIELD — On Tuesday afternoon, 13 Berkshire County high school juniors sat down with a couple of adults to have the intimate talk a lot of kids and teens aren't getting at home — about personal finance.

Greylock Federal Credit Union Vice President of Community Development Director Cindy Shogry-Raimer and Assistant Branch Manager Rebecca Beron, a certified credit union financial counselor, spent nearly two hours at Berkshire Community College talking with the members of the 1Berkshire Youth Leadership Program about their financial habits, from saving to spending to how they might be building good credit. The financial experts also provided an exercise to help the students expand their vocabulary around the topic, asking the students to learn about and define terms like "principal," "interest" and "secured loan."

When Shogry-Raimer and Beron asked the students how many of them previously had taken a personal finance class, only four of the 13 raised their hand.

Within the next year, things are set to change.

Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into legislation a bipartisan financial literacy bill requiring the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop standards and curriculum guidelines for the commonwealth's schools, from prekindergarten through Grade 12.

"I think that's going to be incredibly helpful, because it's just not being taught well at home," Shogry-Raimer said. "If we can get these kinds of life skills back into schools, that would be wonderful."

During a mock budgeting exercise, students had to make monthly budgeting decisions for fictional students and new workers. They faced questions like:

- Is $1,000 a month enough to budget for an apartment in Boston?

- Do they need a car, or can they save money with public transportation?

- Could their person sacrifice a new pair of Sperry shoes so they could pay for their cellphone bill? Or, do they bank on the hope that an employer will give their person a work phone?

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Answering those questions, they realized, is neither ideal, nor concrete, especially when a wrench is thrown into a budget, like an unexpected medical expense or car repair bill.

Such is life.

Students in the Youth Leadership Program dedicate one afternoon a month to learning life lessons and leadership skills outside their high school classrooms, through field trips, presentations and workshops. The group members said Tuesday's topic about financial decision-making is something they want to hear more about.

Asked about how talking about money and finance makes them feel, student responses varied.

"Nervous," said Aliyah Heideman of Pittsfield High School.

"It's kind of scary," said Catherine Boino of Wahconah Regional High School. She said she has watched an older sibling learn some financial lessons the hard way.

"So, I'm learning a lot now," Boino said.

JT Novitsky of Lenox Memorial Middle and High School said the subject makes him feel "old. I'm feeling like my parents having to think about all of this," he said. "When you're young, people think you're irresponsible, so they don't give you responsibilities. Then, suddenly you graduate and you're handed all these things and expected to think like an adult. There's no transition."

"It's important for us to be able to understand where to put our money," said Alex Morin of Mount Greylock Regional High School.

Currently, the students are getting their first taste of making and managing money through a group project for the Youth Leadership Program. They have been holding bake sales, bottle-collection drives and taking up other collections to plan an Earth Day event this spring. The money will be used to create displays and provide prizes for those who visit their booth at the Downtown Pittsfield Farmers Market in April. The rest of the money will be donated to Berkshire Children & Families.

Beron said that any opportunity that anyone has to learn financial skills and about money management is a valuable experience at any age."Everyone thinks they know at least a little about money, but nobody knows everything about money. It's important to keep learning," she said.


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