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West Roxbury Academy aims for financial literacy

Accounting firm employee Adrian Martin spoke with seniors Selena Gonzales, Luis Capriles, and Katherine Chavez (right) during the last financial literacy class.

Accounting firm employee Adrian Martin spoke with seniors Selena Gonzales, Luis Capriles, and Katherine Chavez (right) during the last financial literacy class.

With just weeks to go before graduation, chattering West Roxbury Academy seniors file into ­Erin Ripston’s algebra room for their last class of the afternoon. But on this day, their lesson has little to do with math.

Instead, it’s about networking and branding — buzzwords Ripston hopes will stick with her students beyond the high school’s walls. It’s the final class of a two-year program that aims to educate students about financial literacy and preparing for careers.

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“Someday, I want to own my own house, have a family, buy a car, all that stuff,” said Salah Yusef, 18, a ­senior who plans to attend Bentley University in Waltham in the fall. “I know there will be a ton of financial challenges, a lot of loans, but I feel more prepared to handle it all now.”

The West Roxbury Academy program, supported by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, is part of a broader effort to give students — and adults — the tools to make the right financial decisions in a world in which saving, investing, and borrowing have become increasingly complicated.

Many analysts say a lack of financial understanding can lead to bad choices that hurt the economy. Just look at the run-up to the last recession, when many consumers took on high-cost mortgages they didn’t understand or couldn’t afford. Many others didn’t understand how credit cards worked, running up large bills, making minimum payments, and paying high interest rates that pushed their debt higher.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Bernadette Geis of PricewaterhouseCoopers, and West Roxbury Academy senior Luis Capriles talked during a recent financial literacy class, which is sponsored by the accounting firm.

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Both contributed to the bursting of a credit bubble and collapse in consumer spending that made the last recession one of the worst in modern history.

“The economy simply can’t sustain itself if people don’t have the wherewithal to manage their money,” said Bernadette Geis, an asset management assurance partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, explaining the company’s support for financial literacy programs. “Our success as a firm is directly tied to that.”

Since its inception last year, a rotating group of more than 40 PricewaterhouseCoopers ­accountants have volunteered each week to teach at West Roxbury Academy and nearly a dozen other schools in the Boston area.

In their final class, the West Roxbury Academy students learn about developing and maintaining professional contacts, practicing an “elevator pitch” to introduce themselves to potential employers, and exploring the professional social networking site LinkedIn. But most of the past two years have been spent on heavier material — examining factors that affect insurance premiums, analyzing the information in a credit report, and calculating gains and losses when stocks in companies such as Apple Inc. or Microsoft Corp. are bought or sold.

If their smartphones are out, it’s to check the Dow.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Seniors Matthew Lara and Erica Villareyna and Paula Josephs, of PricewaterhouseCoopers, during a networking class.

Last semester, the class competed in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ High School Business Challenge, a nationwide contest to create the best business plan for an independent record label.

One group of West Roxbury students made it to the top 5, and won $10,000 for the school to buy career supplies such as resume paper and blazers to wear to interviews.

Other students have applied what they learned to ventures outside school. Kenny Nguyen, 18, found his niche business in the unexpected commodity of designer sneakers, and has been able to make thousands of dollars by traveling to sneaker conventions from Chicago to Florida to buy and trade. Recently, Nguyen, using knowledge from the financial literacy class, has been investing his profits in stocks and mutual funds in the hope of furthering his gains.

“Sneakers are just like stocks, the prices go up and down,” he explained. “I buy and sell them at a rapid pace based on their value.”

The students’ interest in money matters is unusual, especially for young Americans, who tend to have limited knowledge of personal finance. A 2009 study by student loan giant Sallie Mae found that fewer than 1 in 5 college students with credit cards paid them off every month, while the rest likely racked up interest costs or fees from paying bills late.

Meanwhile, the average college graduate owes $35,200 in debt, according to a recent study from Fidelity Investments, while unemployment for Americans ages 16 to 24 stands at 16.1 percent, compared with an overall US rate of 7.5 percent.

These are facts that every high school student should know about and be prepared to deal with, said Caroline Ratcliffe, an economist at The ­Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research firm.

“The earlier in life a person begins to build wealth, the more time those assets have to compound and become more valuable,” Ratcliffe told a Federal Financial Literacy and Education Commission panel this month. “The key is to teach more people to make sound financial decisions earlier in life.”

Alyssa Edes can be reached at alyssa.edes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.
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