Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 23, 2012

Making the future profitable for youth

Nonprofit teaches low-income teens life skills, financial savvy

by Haiy Le

Investment counselor Thomas Arrington usually spends his time managing the assets and portfolios of high-profile clients. But for 50 minutes every Friday afternoon, he, along with other volunteers, manages a classroom full of Menlo-Atherton High School students who are learning about personal financial skills.

On a recent Friday, Arrington was leading them through a budgeting activity that involved listing "needs and wants" on the whiteboard. So far on the list of needs: shelter, food and utilities.

"Clothes," one student chimed in.

"Very good," Arrington said. "And it's not just because we don't want to walk around naked."

Some students laughed.

"I sometimes have to wear a suit. And I had to wear one today because I was meeting a client, and they expect that of me. So for your job, sometimes you have to wear certain types of clothes. Maybe it's a uniform or a suit, but you have to have clothes."

Arrington is one of 40 volunteers for nonprofit program FutureProfits, which works with local organizations and public high schools in south San Mateo County to help low-income students become more savvy about finances.

This past year, the program received a $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund.

FutureProfits works on three levels: in the classroom, where volunteers teach the FutureProfits curriculum to about 500 students; in labs, where 200 students apply what they are learning; and through a mentoring program, in which about 30 students are enrolled.

John Liotti, executive director of Able Works, which oversees FutureProfits, established the financial literacy program in 2007 because he felt existing curricula didn't meet the needs of low-income teens.

"Many of the programs focus on things like how to balance a checkbook or how to make a deposit in the bank," Liotti said. "What they don't understand is that our kids will never go in the door of the bank because their parents have never taken them in there. The curricula out there was geared towards suburban kids and not urban kids or where our kids come from."

Liotti recruited Jenni Ingram, FutureProfits' program manager, to help write a new, 300-page curriculum.

"Instead of just teaching typical financial literacy, we try to go a little bit deeper than that and look at the context where the students are coming from, how their community affects the way that they view money," Ingram said.

The curriculum contains four units, each with six lessons.

"Our first unit talks about money and power and how they are interrelated. That's the distinct difference between any curriculum out there," Liotti said.

One of the lessons that seek to teach this is the bean game, in which students are given a different number of beans and they play roshambo (rock-paper-scissors) to win each others' beans. It becomes clear that students who start off with more beans are able to accumulate beans more quickly than those who had fewer.

"It's a picture of how in our society when you enter the workforce with more beans and when you have more resources that can help you move forward in the workforce or just in life in general, (the game) helps to develop and figure out what resources you have," Ingram said.

FutureProfits' volunteers come to classrooms where the curriculum can be relevant, such as economics or business math classes. In some classrooms, the students are evaluated on participation. Other classrooms tie students' grades to their performance on FutureProfits' pre- and post-tests, which are given for each of the four units. Low-performing students have improved by 44 percent, and all students on average have improved 19 percent, according to staff.

Liotti acknowledges that FutureProfits' outcomes have to be observed beyond test scores.

"That's the challenge. To make a culture shift in the lives of a student like this takes a long time," he said.

The 300-page curriculum has sold about 500 copies and has been implemented in a few cities across the nation. There have been discussions about expanding, but Liotti wants the program to make deep inroads into the local community first. FutureProfits is currently at five local high schools.

"We would like to be in every school that has low-income students in the Peninsula," Liotti said. "So talking about local scale, absolutely. National scale, we don't know yet."

Before co-founding Able Works, Liotti worked with runaway children in Hollywood and with refugees in Mexico. These experiences showed him his desire to start addressing issues at the systemic level.

"It began with a frustration, with really wanting to see the systems of poverty broken," he said. "We felt like we wanted to take a step back and try to create programs and projects that dealt with the systems of poverty and the systems of injustice."

It's why volunteers such as LeeNette Merino joined FutureProfits.

"I want people to learn that they can be free from being a slave to money, especially for kids," Merino, a mechanical engineer, said.

During the budgeting activity, Merino shared her experiences living abroad, comparing the cost of living to that of San Francisco.

"The cost of living, where I come from in Southeast Asia, is ridiculous because to meet your basic needs, it's only about one dollar a day for the poorest of the poor," Merino said.

FutureProfits program manager Ingram encourages the volunteers to share these types of stories.

"We find that students will remember a smaller percentage of the information they are taught, but they will almost (always) remember stories and things that relate to them," she said. "And so we try to encourage volunteers to share their personal stories so that they are able to build a personal relationship with the students."

Business math teacher Peter Taryokis appreciates the insight that the volunteers bring into the classroom.

"It's nice to have examples from the community who are actually in business to say that, 'Hey, this isn't just something in the book. This is people from the community who really think you need these same skills we are talking about,'" he said.

Editorial Intern Haiy Le can be emailed a hle@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center
on Nov 23, 2012 at 7:13 am

Thank you, Thomas Arrington and others, for teaching this much needed class. High school students are profoundly ignorant about money matters and yet it plays a very important part of our every day lives.


Posted by Ducatigirl, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 26, 2012 at 3:07 pm

These are VERY necessary skills to have that normally are not taught in any school. They are best not learned the hard way, if possible.

Thanx for giving the kids a clue.


Posted by Mark C, a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 1, 2012 at 6:17 am

I'm a volunteer with Future Profits as well, and I believe the students are learning very practical skills, as well as perspective. We led an activity that allowed students to freely answer questions describing their family background: how many jobs their parents work, what language is spoken at home, their parents' education & life style, etc. This program lends volunteers like myself the chance to learn so much about the students story, and in that, the lives going on locally.


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