Becoming money smart: Amherst 5th-graders learn with mock work, paying rent

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  • Charlotte “Charlie” Hope writes a check during a finance class for fifth-graders taught by Jonathan Severance at Fort River School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hattie Holabird, front, raises her hand to bid during an auction that was part of a finance class taught by Jonathan Severance, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018 at Fort River School. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Severance, top, helps the class of fifth-graders learn to write checks. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A group of fifth graders at Fort River School, including Damien Sanchez, front, learn to write checks during a finance class by Jonathan Severance, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hattie Holabird, front left, and Charlotte "Charlie" Hope raise their hands to bid during an auction that was part of a finance class taught by Jonathan Severance, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018 at Fort River School. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Teacher Jonathan Severance holds up a chalkboard for bids during an auction that was part of his finance class for fifth-graders at Fort River School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jonathan Severance holds up a chalkboard for bids during an auction that was part of his finance class for fifth graders Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018 at Fort River School. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mason Cianfrani-Shin, right, raises his hand to bid during an auction that was part of the finance class. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sydney Holmes, right, celebrates after winning a travel diary in an auction that was part of a finance class for fifth-graders taught by Jonathan Severance, Wednesday, Dec. 19, at Fort River School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jonathan Severance, right, takes a bid during an auction that was part of his finance class for fifth graders Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018 at Fort River School. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kaelyn Scully bids before winning an art set in an auction that was part of the class on finance. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/8/2019 10:13:39 PM

On an afternoon in late December, fifth-grade students at Fort River Elementary School gather around and write their rent checks.

“Who can remind us what a memo is?” teacher Jonathan Severance asks the class.

It’s not a real check — they’re elementary school students after all — but it looks like one.

Displaying a blank check on the smart board, Severance walks the class through what to put on each line of the mock check as each student follows along, making their check out to “the order of Severance Realty.”

It’s all part of an initiative to give students a taste of the real world and teach them about money.

“A lot of kids graduate from college with these enormous debts,” Severance said. “It’s really hard to work their way out of it. I try to teach some awareness.”

To his point, research shows that as little as 7 percent of high school students can be considered financially literate, according to a 2015 Massachusetts report on financial literacy, and that Massachusetts is one of 12 states across the country that does not require schools to offer financial education courses to students.

Many schools throughout the Valley have taken their own initiative to fill the void by offering financial literacy lessons. For example, Hopkins Academy in Hadley is making personal finance a new graduation requirement. About a year ago, the School Committee voted to make the course, already offered to grades 10-12 as an elective, a requirement for the Class of 2020.

And Easthampton High School has offered a personal finance course for about a decade.

Additionally, partnerships between school districts and financial institutions are also helping to teach youngsters about money management. The Polish National Credit Union, for example, is working with Banzai, a financial literacy program, to make its curriculum available to 54 schools in the Valley free. Hampshire County schools using the program include Amherst, Belchertown, Easthampton, Northampton, Granby, Hatfield, South Hadley and Westhampton.

Students using the program are exposed to real-life scenarios where they learn to pay bills and balance a budget. Students must learn to manage unexpected expenses such as parking tickets, interest charges and overdraft fees. The educational program also introduces students to auto loans, bank statements, entertainment costs, savings and more.

Severence bucks

At Fort River Elementary, there’s no one unit on personal finance in the class; rather, it’s incorporated into the whole year.

Every student is assigned a job, one that they applied for at the start of the year based on their interests. Positions range from organizing the class library to distributing papers to the class.

Finn Hannigan manages the cart of laptops in the classroom.

“I’m someone who really likes tech,” he said. “It’s the perfect job for me.”

For doing their tasks they get paid a monthly salary, somewhere around 500 Severance bucks — the currency in the fifth-grade classroom.

“That’s their base salary,” Severance said. There are opportunities to earn extra cash, like doing bonus math problems or additional reading. Over the holiday break, for example, students can earn Severance bucks by reading.

“It’s just a way to sweeten the work,” he said.

Severance added that some enterprising students even start businesses.

Each month, students must pay $400 in rent. But if a student really saves, they can buy their “house” for three times their rent.

Student Kaelyn Scully said she knew the basic idea of a check, but learned how to write it in this class. The class is fun, she said.

“He teaches us how to spend our money correctly … I think it’s a good thing to know when you’re out in the real world,” she said.

It’s totally different than anything else Hattie Holabired has done in school before, she said.

Holabired works as one of the bankers, checking students’ bank cards for mistakes. “Lots of people try to persuade me for money — it doesn’t help.”

She’s not sure what the other fifth grade class, who doesn’t do this program, thinks about it. “I think they probably wish they were in this class,” she said.

Severance has been doing the program for eight years, the last three years teaching in Amherst schools and previously in other schools.

The idea originally came from a colleague at a previous teaching job in Newton.

He was also influenced by his own fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Crowley, in Natick. Severance still remembers a mock stock market project in Crowley’s class in which students invested in stocks and tracked their value.

“It just stuck with me,” he said.

While growing up, his family imparted the value of earning and spending his own money. And that stuck, too.

“A candy bar was an investment for me — I have that personality,” he said.

Once the work of writing a check is done, it’s on to something more fun: an auction.

A few times a year, students get to spend their excess cash bidding on items. Severance stands at the front of the room behind a table with an array of colorful prizes like notebooks, water bottles and colored pencils. Students raise their hands bidding on calculators and other toys.

Amid the auction chaos, Coralis Vazquez Ayala said the program taught her how to use money.

Before raising her hand in a bid for a toy squirrel at the auction, Ayala said her job is to reshelve books as the student librarian. She said it’s the perfect job because she loves books.

After the auction, Hannigan said he saw some items he wanted to buy, but he didn’t have enough for them. He should have saved more, he realized.

That’s not out of the ordinary. Some kids end up overspending in the auctions, Severance said, but he thinks they learn.

“It’s better to make that mistake here with Severance bucks,” he said.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




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