BILLERICA — As families throughout the region struggle to regain their financial footing after the recession, educators at Shawsheen Valley Technical High School are taking steps to teach students how to manage their money.
The school has partnered with Cambridge Savings Bank to offer seniors classes on personal finance. The students, many of whom work part time or have secured paid internships through Shawsheen’s cooperative education program, learn the basics of budgeting, saving, and managing credit. They also learn how to protect themselves from fraud and identity theft.
The class delves into these weighty topics with humor and dramatic flair. The students perform an impromptu theater skit, the “lunchtime loan,” to highlight the importance of repaying debts to establish creditworthiness, and wave green and pink flash cards to signal whether certain financial moves — opening several credit accounts, having a parent co-sign a loan, or shunning credit cards and exclusively using debit cards for purchases — would be good or bad for their credit scores.
“It’s a reality check for students who come from families of all income levels,” said Cambridge Savings Bank vice president and financial education program manager Evan Diamond, who has been teaching the CSBsmart program since 2010.
Students who have completed the personal finance program believe it may offer life lessons that transcend traditional math courses like algebra and calculus.
“I learned how to balance a checkbook and figure out my budget,” said Sarah McSheehy, 17, of Wilmington, a culinary arts student at Shawsheen who aspires to be a nutritionist.
“They’re lessons that will help me now and when I head off to college,” she said. “The classes taught me how to better protect myself when it comes to my financial life.”
The nation’s recent financial meltdown, coupled with Americans having to shoulder increasing responsibility for their financial future as traditional pensions vanish, has provided added incentive to ensure that students understand how to navigate the economic landscape.
Equipping high school students with basic knowledge about checking accounts, savings, and credit cards will enable them to better understand the perils of debt and make informed financial decisions as they prepare for the world beyond high school, educators said.
“Often, high schools don’t have the opportunity to offer this kind of program, but it’s so important to expose students to these topics, especially vocational students who are already working and earning paychecks,” said Carissa Karakaedos, assistant superintendent-director at Shawsheen, which draws students from a number of communities, including Bedford, Billerica, Burlington, Tewksbury, and Wilmington.
Charles Lyons, Shawsheen’s superintendent-director, noted that 54 percent of this year’s 323 seniors are employed in co-op positions, gaining practical, hands-on job experience that complements their classroom lessons.
All of the regional school’s 12th-graders, regardless of whether they participate in cooperative education, are expected to complete the CSBsmart program as part of a related theory class, an academic course that is designed to equip them with skills they can apply to their shop classes.
In all, the bank offers four personal finance classes throughout the year: budgeting and saving; managing a checking account; credit smarts; and fraud smarts.
“We are thrilled with the program,” said Lyons, noting that the bank provides the classes at no charge to the district. “It’s not free money, but it’s invaluable financial advice.”
Over the past three years, Cambridge Savings Bank has educated 8,891 participants, from kindergarten students to retirees, through similar financial education programs. The CSBsmart program has reached 2,354 high school students since 2010, Diamond said. This is the second year the program has been offered to Shawsheen’s seniors; Somerville High School also has participated.
Just 22 states require students to take an economics course to earn a high school diploma, according to a survey released in 2011 by the Council for Economic Education, an organization that strives to improve the economic and financial education of students in kindergarten through grade 12.
Massachusetts is not among them, so many districts choose to cover personal finance in other courses, such as math classes that touch on accounting principles.
Diamond is hopeful that the recent mortgage crisis and economic downturn will prompt more schools to offer stand-alone courses in personal finance and fill the gap between what students know about economics and what they need to know. Students — and their parents — need to understand the impact that overspending can have, not only on household finances but also on the overall economy, he said.
“Education is one way to tackle that problem,” Diamond said. “Students need to understand the pitfalls of spending more than they earn, of relying too heavily on credit. They need to know how to build a favorable credit history and prevent unmanageable debt.”
McSheehy said the most important lesson rom the CSBsmart course was that she doesn’t need to be a Wall Street whiz to master her finances.
“I’ve been working for about six months now,” she said. “This class helped me figure out how to save more of what I earn.”