Financial Literacy in Schools: How One Woman Is Changing the Tide

April 20, 2015

Could you imagine a world in which people reach adulthood prepared with basic financial education about money, credit, and retirement?  The best life lessons are the ones learned early and reinforced over a person’s formative years -- so why not start the financial literacy ball rolling early?

The Colorado General Assembly took steps in 2004 and 2008 to create financial literacy standards in our K-12 school curriculum.

The hope was that young people might be equipped with the knowledge to:

  • Manage savings, investment and checking accounts
  • Budget household income, expenses, and personal debt
  • Understand consumer credit and finance, personal credit options
  • Make short-term and long-term investment choices

About a year and a half ago, I met an extraordinary person while making a retirement presentation to a group of Englewood School District teachers.

Enter stage right, Heather Greenwood, Englewood Public School’s Financial Literacy Coordinator.  A CPA, she has twelve years of experience teaching personal finance (her favorite subject) to high school juniors and seniors.  After a sabbatical to perform service in Uganda, she returned to Englewood Public Schools to her current position, her passion.

With a grant from Great-West Financial for a district-wide financial literacy program, Greenwood's role is to support the district’s K-12 teachers in integrating financial literacy into their classrooms.  She partners with teachers to provide them with curriculum resources, time for curriculum development and advocates to administration for the importance of classroom time dedicated to financial literacy.

What you hear from her is passion for financial literacy, at every turn.  Her goal is simple.  She wants to ensure that every student leaves Englewood Public Schools with the basic financial and economic knowledge and reasoning skills to make sound financial decisions.

And, she is having a lasting impact on the lives of thousands of students.  Working in a smaller district lets her feel the impact across all schools and at all levels.

"Meeting specific student needs, especially those from lower-income, working families, both inside and outside the classroom is a big piece of financial literacy and a graduate's potential for future success,” she explained.

Here are three of Greenwood’s benchmark success stories:

  • Partnered with a 6th grade Bishop Elementary teacher last fall, the after school math support club formed a Stock Market Club. They used the free online Stock Market Experience sponsored locally by the Colorado Council on Economic Education.  The students used their iPads to participate in this online simulation over 10 weeks with a $100,000 virtual portfolio.  They learned investing basics, used Yahoo Finance for research, all while reinforcing their math skills in a real world context.  At the end of the simulation, one student who was so excited about what he had learned, commented how he was going to ask his dad to buy him a share of stock for Christmas. This student went on to present the Stock Market Club activities to the school board.
  • In their “Financial Friday” pilot program at Clayton Elementary, the students had a four-part, two month lesson series on financial goal setting.  Sixth graders served as project leaders and selected a local charity in conjunction with Colorado Gives Day for the whole school to support.  Each student set their own financial goal for raising money by asking friends, doing chores, etc. In just 2 short weeks, the entire student body raised $1,500 to donate to the Denver Dumb Friends League.
  • During this past year, transitional students at Englewood High School saw firsthand how to apply the classroom learning through experiential field trips. They visited a local bank to help understand how to complete routine banking transactions and an apartment complex to simulate an apartment search process.  Community support from local businesses provided hands-on financial literacy learning opportunities for students.  Four of the eight students in this program are now employed, and, have the knowledge to read their paychecks and understand how to use financial institutions to help manage their money.

“Students can know all of the financial concepts and guidelines backwards and forwards, in the end it comes down to their behaviors and decisions. But, to challenge students to practice their skills through a decision making process, including financial ones, will benefit them for their entire lifetime. We also want to empower student confidence to make these decisions by having some exposure to various financial options which can help end the cycle of poor financial habits that may experience at home,” she said.

When asked about the best part of her job, passion emerges once again. As a former teacher, she appreciates all of the demands on a teacher’s time and wants to provide classroom resources, planning time, and experiential opportunities around financial literacy to make teacher's lives easier. She believes this gives them the ability to invest their energy in making the material come to life for the kids.

Like so many things in her life, Greenwood looks at her role as a gift.  No small wonder she has received great support from the school board and administration.

In part, financial literacy is really about building the confidence in students that they can understand and take action for their future success based upon a solid foundation of knowledge.  Knowledge is a great offense against the intimidation that money matters can produce.  Ms. Greenwood has found plenty of support from students’ parents.  She wants the program to be taken home by students where it can promote positive conversations with parents.

In the elementary schools, she is piloting “Financial Fridays.”  On these Fridays a financial literacy lesson, aligned with state standards, is presented and a parent letter goes home outlining the concepts the students learned that day, including some suggested discussion questions for the family.  She underscored the importance of extending the learning around money beyond the classroom to parents to grow their confidence.  In the high school, a course in personal finance is required for graduation.

A great experiment is taking place right in our very own backyard, making way for the possibility of a generation of young people with a solid foundation of financial and economic knowledge. A big part of that success will be based upon the efforts of a tireless former CPA, teacher and current Financial Literacy Coordinator – Englewood Public School’s Heather Greenwood.