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Elmo, Merrill Lynch team to teach kids about money

I've always loved Sesame Street and its wholesome approach to teaching kids lessons in life. Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover and Elmo were our family favorites.

So imagine my consternation recently when I opened an envelope from Wall Street giant Merrill Lynch and pulled out a colorful poster of none other than Elmo. Our furry, red Sesame Street friend, now a marketing tool for the Papa Bull of capitalism. What on earth is going on?

Not to worry.

This business, as it turns out, is part of a new Internet-based program from Merrill Lynch to introduce kids to the wide, wide world of money. And, yes, Elmo is the designated poster boy, thanks to a partnership between Merrill Lynch and Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street. Called Investing Pays Off, the program is viewed as a way to help children master important financial skills such as budgeting, learning to save, investing, using credit cards, understanding international currencies, even starting a business.

"Survey after survey shows kids don't know much about money, yet at the same time they tell you they are very interested in learning," said Eddy Bayardelle, head of global philanthropy at Merrill Lynch in New York.

Bayardelle said Investing Pays Off was created to "teach (financial lessons) that are relevant to kids' daily lives."

For help, Merrill Lynch turned to the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a nonprofit organization that develops materials that teach youngsters financial and entrepreneurial skills. The foundation created 15 financial lessons that are the heart of Investing Pays Off.

All the lessons are available, for free, by going to www.ml.com/philanthropy/volunteer.

Investing Pays Off was designed for three age groups _ 7- to 10-year-olds, 11 to 14 and 15 to 18. With each lesson, terms are defined and explained, and worksheets, videos and other activities can be downloaded.

The curriculum, for example, starts with definitions of stocks and bonds for younger kids. Teens, however, learn how to create and monitor an investment portfolio. Worksheets show youngsters how to budget money, establish good credit, develop leadership skills, adopt a strategy for charitable giving and much more.

"The idea was to teach a broader view of the world of money," Bayardelle said. "Not just spending and making money, but how to give back."

The program is not designed for just plunking a kid in front of a computer and letting the Internet take its course. Merrill Lynch is encouraging teachers, parents, other caregivers and its brokerage force to tap into the Web site. Each lesson should take no more than an hour.

Merrill Lynch tested parts of the program a year ago in California and in April started promoting it through its brokerage network, schools and nonprofit education and community organizations.

This is where Elmo comes in. The Sesame Workshop, as one of many partners in the venture, has designed the poster to publicize Investing Pays Off. The Sesame Street folks also are creating a workbook for younger kids and are developing public-service announcements to spread the word, Bayardelle said. Other tie-ins are being discussed.

Wouldn't it be nice to see Elmo become a force in teaching kids financial lessons, too?

Scant progress

Personal-finance education in schools continues to be an afterthought in most parts of the country, according to a new survey by the National Council on Economic Education.

While that hardly is surprising news given the state of school funding, the study documents just how little progress has been made in recent years regarding personal-finance education in the public school system.

According to the council's 2002 report card released in April, only Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky and New York as of last year required students to complete a course that covered personal finance before graduating from high school. This finding was unchanged from the organization's 2000 survey.

"Based on this finding," the council said, "we can safely conclude that the vast majority of our young people are not being taught about personal finance in our nation's schools."

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