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Investing in the future

Susan Janney perched atop a stool behind the counter at the Pinellas County Teachers Credit Union and smiled at the next person in line.

"I can help you over here," she said in a friendly voice to a woman holding a large Styrofoam cup.

The woman approached the counter and dumped six rolls of coins out of the cup. She told Janney she wanted to exchange the coins for paper and that she also wanted to deposit a check.

Janney handled the deposit first, then counted the rolls of quarters, dimes and nickels.

"Twenty-eight fifty, right?" she asked the woman as she dropped the rolls into a plastic box. "How would you like that back?"

Half a minute later, Janney was assisting the next person. Throughout the morning, she cashed checks, arranged for traveler's checks and made deposits into checking and savings accounts. Few of the credit union members who came through her line realized she was only 16 years old.

Janney, a junior at Northeast High, is one of 26 students who are training this summer with employees of the Pinellas County Teachers Credit Union. The students will put their training to the test when they open a fully functioning branch of the credit union at Northeast in August.

The Viking branch, which will be run by and for students, will serve as the centerpiece of Northeast's finance academy, a career program that gets students ready for jobs in the financial arena. It will offer checking and savings accounts, automated teller privileges and just about any other service available at the credit union's six other Pinellas branches.

"When we started the center for finance two years ago, the Viking branch was just a vision," said Debbie Fischer, finance academy director. "We did not have a business partner that was willing to support this part of the program. But I've learned that when you hear the word "no' you don't stop. You just keep moving forward."

It occurred to Fischer about a year ago that the Pinellas County Teachers Credit Union might be interested in forming a partnership with the school. She made an appointment to speak with president Wendell Brooks, who spoke to his staff.

Brooks was intrigued by the idea because he saw it as an opportunity for young people to begin learning about financial responsibility.

"We didn't know where it was going to go, but it has generated its own momentum," Brooks said. "It has generated enthusiasm among the staff here."

Sally Rodgers, the credit union's vice president of marketing, said the partnership between Northeast and the credit union was a natural.

"We started out as a teachers' credit union. Service to the school system builds on our heritage," she said, adding that such a partnership is just as valuable for the credit union as it is for the students, because they are the credit union's future members.

Training got under way in January, when credit union staff began visiting the school to teach the students about the financial industry. Representatives came from individual departments in March to give them instruction in auditing, accounting and member services and to help them begin formulating an idea of the different jobs available to them in a credit union. Their on-the-job training began in June.

"Their minds are like steel traps," said quality assurance manager Gina Signor. "I've been trying to get away from calling them kids. They're young adults. That's the way they conduct themselves."

School has taken on new meaning for some students in Northeast's finance academy, especially as the Viking branch comes closer to becoming a reality. Heather Kunz, a junior, had been counting the days until graduation when she realized she was enjoying Fischer's business systems technology class last year.

"I wasn't interested in school. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life," she said. "Then I got into this program and it has completely changed my outlook."

The 16-year-old will take time off from her job at the YMCA to begin training as a member services adviser at the credit union on Monday. She will work with credit union employees from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. for 10 days, learning how to open accounts and how to issue ATM cards.

She hopes to be branch manager in her senior year. After she graduates, she sees a career in finance as a possibility.

Tezera Reddick, another junior, was struggling to maintain a C grade point average when she entered the finance academy in January. Within a few months, she had pulled up her grades and couldn't wait to get to school each morning.

"I feel like I'm going to school for something now," said Reddick, 16. "I want to achieve all the knowledge I can about banking. I just want to know everything about it and be a success."

She spent the spring semester designing brochures, fliers and newsletters to let other students know about the Viking branch. Her training in the marketing department at the Largo branch begins Thursday.

Kong Lee, who will also be a junior, was a good student but struggled with self-confidence. He spoke little English when he arrived in the United States from Vietnam three years ago and wondered how he would make friends when he got to high school.

The finance academy gave him the confidence to make new friends, he said, because it encouraged him to work as part of a team. It also has given him a career goal. The 16-year-old, who will begin training Monday as a teller, has decided he wants a career in the financial field.

But as gratifying as it is to see students find their niche, Fischer said, the real beauty of the finance academy, and the Viking branch in particular, is its ability to teach them fiscal responsibility.

"They're going to be able to utilize those skills whether they are going to continue in the financial arena or if they're just going to be handling their own finances," she said. "They'll have those real skills that they're going to be able to take with them."

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