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To learn about money, students get adult roles

Financial literacy is the goal of a Washington-area program for students.

AP/ File 2012

Financial literacy is the goal of a Washington-area program for students.

As she punched numbers into a calculator, Luka Fernandez had a lot to figure out. How much could she afford to pay for a car? Should she buy cable? Where should she live? These are the types of questions facing many adults as they try to manage a household budget. But Luka is a 14-year-old pretending to be an adult as part of a financial literacy exercise at the Junior Achievement Finance Park in Fairfax County, Va.

‘‘I don’t know how much my parents spend, but I know they pay more for stuff like groceries,’’ said Luka, an eighth-grader.

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Bryan Lee, another student, said he never thought about how much his mother paid for cable, water, and groceries until he participated in the financial literacy class.

Luka and Bryan are among 14,000 eighth-grade students in the Washington region each year who spend a day of school at the finance park.

The students attend after spending five weeks learning about interest and credit, the risks and benefits of saving and investing, the difference between gross and net monthly income, and other aspects of financial literacy during math and social studies classes.

They move about the building, which is set up like a shopping mall, going to storefronts of businesses that are Junior Achievement partners. For example, the students decide which type of car and home insurance plans to purchase at Wells Fargo, the kind of house to purchase at Clark Construction, and telephone and cable packages at Verizon.

Each student is given a profile (married or single, family size, annual salary).

Megan Ibbotson, an eighth-grade school counselor, said she was thrilled to see how immersed the students became in trying to balance budgets.

“They feel like they are playing a game,’’ Ibbotson said, noting that financial literacy is a high school graduation requirement in Virginia.

‘‘Yes, the game of life,’’ said Edward J. Grenier III, chief executive of Junior Achievement of Greater Washington.

After running the program in Fairfax for about two years, Junior Achievement has plans to partner with public schools in Prince George’s County, Md., to offer a similar curriculum.

Capital One Bank is joining the venture and plans to provide $2.5 million to build a 14,000-square-foot building in Landover, Md., the second Junior Achievement campus in the region. Capital One also paid for the building in Fairfax. The new finance park is scheduled to open for the 2014 school year.

‘‘We have a unique opportunity to change a culture,’’ said Lateefah Durant, an academic officer in Prince George’s County, during a recent presentation to the Board of Education. ‘‘As a county, as a state, and as a nation we know the result of making poor financial decisions.’’

Grenier, who got the program off the ground in Prince George’s about three years ago, said teaching the ins and outs of managing money is ‘‘a pretty powerful gift to give to a young person.’’

School board member Peggy Higgins said the program probably will have a positive effect in Prince George’s, which has Maryland’s highest number of foreclosed homes.

‘‘What this does is not only help students, but our county,’’ Higgins said. ‘‘It shows the importance of . . . learning how to handle money.’’

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