CPS teachers spend much of their time on literacy (i.e., shaping their students' reading and writing skills). But on the last Wednesday in April, many were focused on literacy of a different sort.
On April 30, Chicago served as the U.S. launch city for "Talk With Our Kids About Money" (TWOKAM) Day, a program geared toward improving financial literacy among young people. A combined effort by BMO Harris Bank and the Canadian Foundation for Economic Education, TWOKAM originated in Canada in 2013 and made its U.S. debut at CPS's Ariel Community Academy.
"Many of today's adults did not receive a financial education, and as a result, had to learn some lessons the hard way," said Gary Rabbior, President of the Canadian Foundation for Economic Education. "Because of this, they want their children to be well prepared for their financial futures."
Despite this desire, limited financial know-how has created a lack of confidence among some parents and teachers. Enter TWOKAM – a step-by-step curriculum for starting and maintaining a productive conversation about money.
"This program does not require or expect a great deal of expertise," said Rabbior. "The lessons and activities are easy to prepare for and do, and they get everyone involved in learning how to make good financial decisions."
On the last Wednesday in April – the date annually designated for TWOKAM – teachers throughout CPS were invited to present a lesson with a money focus. Lesson plans were available to teachers at the TWOKAM website, spanning subject areas from math and history to art and science. CPS enthusiastically promoted the program, as did City Treasurer Stephanie Neely, for whom financial literacy is a true passion.
"It's never too soon to talk money smarts with our kids," said Neely. "There are serious social costs to financial illiteracy. It affects family stability and children's ability to pursue higher education, and ultimately erodes a neighborhood's vitality. I believe it's my civic duty to try to solve this problem."
It was fitting that TWOKAM be launched at Ariel, as this CPS school has one of the most robust financial literacy programs in the District.
"We were pleased to host the first TWOKAM event and help get this conversation started in more of our schools," said Ariel principal Lennette Coleman. "But at Ariel, we're talking with our kids about money every day."
Beginning in Kindergarten, all Ariel students take financial literacy classes 3-5 days per week. They study economics, personal finance, and entrepreneurship, and learn about the basics of global markets. And beginning in fourth grade, all students use real money to create their own investment portfolios.
"This is the jewel of our crown," said Principal Coleman. "Each class has $20,000 to invest, and they truly are responsible for making their own financial choices."
With guidance from their teachers, the students choose stocks, learn how to buy and sell, and manage their portfolios over time. Upon graduating eighth-grade, they cash out their portfolios, splitting whatever profits exist after reinvesting the original $20,000 for use by future classes. And if they deposit them into a college fund, those profits are matched up to $1,000. These funds are provided by various sponsors, including Ariel Investments, the school's external partner.
"One of the biggest decisions we all make is what to do with our money," said Principal Coleman. "What better way to prepare students for this than through real world, real time financial experience? Our students leave here with a clear understanding of how to manage money, as well as a strong foundation in math, finance, and other Common Core skills."
The organizers of TWOKAM hope that their annual program will help children throughout CPS become as well-versed in personal finance as the students from Ariel.
"Children learn best by doing," said Gary Rabbior. "TWOKAM is designed to be a catalyst that will get parents and teachers involved in supporting the financial education of all our kids. We hope that all those participating will find the program fun and engaging, and that it will help them develop the skills to become money smart."