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Don't Break the Bank: Nonprofit Teaches Kids to Manage Money

Summer camp typically conjures up images of playing sports, splashing in canoes and eating marshmallows around an evening campfire. But not for 12-year-old Ben Wetzel and 10-year-old Jack Wyatt who, along with 80-plus other Baltimore area kids, spent their time at camp this summer learning the ins and outs of running a business.
"I like to work with money. And I really like math," says Wyatt, who is trying his hand as the chief financial officer of a local TV station. As for Wetzel, he's hoping to make a profit as CEO of Toyota Financial Services.

The boys explored these opportunities at Junior Achievement of Central Maryland’s BizTown summer camp. Housed in an Owings Mills office park, students in 4th through 6th grades act out the role of executives in a space that mimics a miniature town, complete with more than a dozen local businesses, including Bank of America, Citibank, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, Northrop Grumman and others. 

Junior Achievement of Central Maryland
has been teaching young people business skills and financial know-how with programs like BizTown since 1957. In the 2011-2012 school year, the nonprofit served nearly 50,000 students statewide – a 60 percent increase compared with the prior year. 
Being in the right business at the right time allowed the nonprofit, with a modest operating budget of $1.4 million, to make this exponential leap as an educational service provider in just one year. A Maryland State Department of Education mandate required all Maryland schools to implement a financial literacy curriculum for students in grades three through 12 this past school year.  In response, Junior Achievement positioned itself as a provider of those skills.
While the state doesn’t require schools to use any specific curriculum, Junior Achievement is becoming a preferred choice, as it earns a reputation for a practical hands-on approach and inclusion of the local business community. All Howard County public schools are using Junior Achievement’s programs, and Anne Arundel schools will be debuting them this fall, according the nonprofit’s president Jennifer Bodensiek. Junior Achievement will continue to expand its financial education programs, growing its high school career readiness initiative through a job shadow program that connects students to future career opportunities. 
Credit card debt: the driving force 
Not surprisingly, concerns related to swelling card credit debt drove the state’s decision to push for financial literacy among Maryland students. But it wasn’t the nation’s ballooning debt in general that sounded the alarm. 
The year was 2008, and Maryland was poised to add tens of thousands of high-paying defense-related jobs as a result of Base Case and Realignment Commission, in which the closure of military bases in other parts of the country meant an increased concentration of desirable jobs at Maryland bases. Many of these jobs require security clearance, and credit card debt generally precludes candidates from obtaining it. Former Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick realized what was at stake for Maryland’s future high school graduates.  
“Dr. Grasmick called us in and told us she was concerned about credit card debt because of the need for security clearance [for BRAC jobs],” recalls Lynne M. Gilli, program manager for the state education department’s Career and Technology Education division. 
By 2011, local Maryland school systems were required to implement financial literacy instruction for students from elementary school through high school so the state is teaching the future holder of these jobs. “The standards are the same for everybody. The approach is local,” Gilli says. “Life skills associated with financial literacy is what we’re most interested in.” 
Real life lessons, simulated 
That’s what Junior Achievement’s programs aim to deliver—life skills related to financial literacy. Consider one of its flagship programs, Finance Park. After 19 classroom lessons on financial literacy, which introduce middle- and high-school students to everything from broad concepts like debt and savings to federal taxes and social security, they get to the fun part of the curriculum. 
That’s when students log onto the virtual world of Finance Park. The simulated adult world presents kids with 18 budget choices, like what kind of car and house they want to buy, and whether they’ll live in a high-rent district or somewhere more affordable. Kids learn to make financial decisions based on their income, number of dependents and other financial circumstances. 
Gilli recalls visiting a local school where eighth-graders were engrossed in the virtual world of Finance Park. “One student said to me, ‘Well, I want this really nice big car but I can’t afford it. I’ve got two kids,'” she says. 
This is exactly the type of ‘aha’ moment Junior Achievement of Central Maryland wants its programs to deliver. “We want students to work through problems,” Bodensiek says. 
That holds true both for JFinance Park and BizTown, where students must apply for the job they want to have—whether it’s at the newspaper or the bank. And they don’t always get their first, or even second, choice. And once they land in a job, success is not guaranteed. “They face the potential of insufficient funds, bounced checks,” Bodensiek says. 
The nonprofit’s real-world programs appeal to local business executives, many of whom have taken a vested interest in the nonprofit. Such is the case with Citibank, which helped finance and test Finance Park.  “We believe in financial inclusion and the more people know and practice good money management habits, we all benefit,” says Sheldon Caplis, south Atlantic regional director for Citi Community Development. 
Drawn not only to the nonprofit’s mission, Citbank’s corporate liaison to the nonprofit knew the company had found the right organization to support after he spent time with its leadership. Says Caplis, “They are creative, interested in continuous improvement and committed to the work they do.”

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore-based freelance writer, covering topics as diverse as parenting and public health. She writes for several local print and web outlets, universities, and medical centers.
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