Students from Heritage Middle School spend time at Finance Park, a simulated program that helps children learn about budget and finance after leaving home.
Students from Heritage Middle School spend time at Finance Park, a program that helps them learn about budgeting and finances after leaving home. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

On a regular day, Maritza is an eighth-grader attending class at Heritage Middle School, but on a Wednesday morning in late February, Maritza also is playing the role of a special-education teacher making $53,000 a year with more than $30,000 in school loans and credit card debt.

Along with about 80 of her classmates, Maritza is participating in Junior Achievement of South Texas’ Finance Park, an intensive six-hour program that assigns students a persona complete with income, debt – and sometimes dependents – and helps them build a hypothetical budget.

Junior Achievement is a national nonprofit focused on empowering young people to succeed in a global economy. The national organization turns 100 this year, and the local group – Junior Achievement of South Texas – turns 40.

Schools sign on to have their students go through the program and turn their class time over to JA volunteers, who teach a variety of courses, including some that take place all in one day and some that stretch out over a number of weeks.

At Finance Park, a one-day program, students are handed a tablet and “credit card” when they walk through the door. They go through the steps any financially independent adult would in a regular month. They have to budget across 21 categories, including phone service, electric utilities, clothing, health care, home improvement, furniture, and a special category called “that’s life,” for unexpected occurrences.

“Some of you may find you are not going to be approved for a loan because of your credit score,” volunteer Katie Fitting said, coaching a group of students applying for their first home loans.

Throughout the session, Fitting asked questions of the students seated at her table, guiding them through a discussion about their own financial knowledge, often asking what their families have discussed with them in the past.

“My parents, they mainly talk to each other about it, but I only hear about it when they talk to my older brother,” eighth-grade student Carissa said.

Within the curriculum, there are many lessons and some guardrails; in each budget category, Junior Achievement suggests a minimum and maximum percentage of an income for a student to contribute to certain budgeting categories. For instance, a student may be told to contribute no less than 5 percent and no more than 10 percent of their income to their savings account.

Students work through their personal budgets, deciding how much money to allocate to each category. Some are initially strict and end up with more money than they know how to spend.

Maritza, for example, tried to finalize a budget with several hundred dollars left over and had to go back and add more to her savings category. Carissa, meanwhile, had to shift some funds around, having overspent. Students test out their budgets when they go “shopping,” selecting actual items in each category with real price tags.

This is often the “aha moment” during the program because kids learn all the steps a budgeting process includes, Junior Achievement of South Texas President Tony Rock said. Rock, who has spent six months in his role, saw the value of the program instantly. Kids who completed Finance Park, or one of the other JA programs that takes place in a regular classroom, would light up, having discovered the secret to real world economics.

“It fills a real gap that is left by standardized testing,” Rock said of JA curriculum. “These crucial life skills have fallen by the wayside over time.”

In just the past school year, almost 100,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade participated in Junior Achievement programs in South Texas with the help of more than 4,300 volunteers.

Volunteers help host JA in a Day, an event at which students are exposed to an entire day of JA curriculum. Volunteers also can sign up to teach a class over a series of weeks in what is the more traditional JA program. In the past year, JA has worked with 21 school districts around San Antonio, including Northside, San Antonio, North East, and Southwest ISDs.

Amie DeLeon, faculty lead for the Palo Alto College Teacher Education program, sends her education students into schools to teach the JA curriculum and learn what life is like inside a classroom.

“I have students tell me one of two things after completing JA in a Day: Either they know they now really want to be a teacher or they know they don’t want to be a teacher,” DeLeon said. “They are learning from real life and are able to connect whatever we are teaching into the real world.”

Last Friday, volunteers from Palo Alto College took over an elementary school in Harlandale ISD for JA in a Day. Freshman education students Ashley Garcia and Amanda Flores stood in front of a class of rambunctious first-graders on the day before spring break.

They broke down complicated ideas related to financial literacy – needs vs. wants and money – into fun games and hands-on activities.

Money can be a complex topic to discuss with younger kids. That’s why JA tailors its curriculum to different age groups.

In first grade, students learn about how family members and businesses contribute to a community. Students define needs and wants and learn what items might fall into each category.

Naomi, a Gillette Elementary School student works on a Junior Achievement activity that helps students separate the wants from the needs.
Naomi, a Gillette Elementary School student, works on an activity that helps students differentiate wants and needs. Credit: Emily Donaldson / San Antonio Report

“You need something so you can stay healthy,” first-grade student Naomi offered to her volunteer teachers.

“It’s something you need to stay alive,” Ociel said. “Something that gives you energy, something like Gatorade.”

The volunteer teachers nodded and showed flashcards with pictures of pets, toys, and sport balls that were deemed as wants; clothing, food, and houses were placed in the need category.

These simple ideas may not mean much to students now but can resonate later on.

Kimberly Brookhouser, a student teacher from Texas A&M University-San Antonio, previously volunteered with Junior Achievement at a variety of grade levels.

“We were talking about making choices, and they suddenly realize, ‘I chose which pants to put on this morning,’” Brookhouser said. “They don’t even realize that they [use this information] everyday.”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.