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Banzai program teaches students financial literacy lessons

Published Jun. 23, 2012

Countryside High teacher Karol Gotte has several cautionary tales to tell about kids and credit cards.

Like the one where a former student maxed out on a $10,000 card. Or when a girl kept paying the minimum balance on a $2,000 credit card bill until her parents saw her monthly statements and paid it off.

"I really try to talk to them about having money in the bank, and to save money and not use credit cards," said Gotte, who has been teaching for 30 years. "Kids don't understand that concept because I think they have grown up using or seeing credit cards or debit cards. I'm not sure if they have a true sense of what money is."

Gotte uses an online program called Banzai to impart personal financial management skills in her accounting class. Students receive fictional paychecks, budget and track their expenses, and pay bills virtually.

Managing one's finances is not easy, said Morgan Vandagriff, co-founder of the Utah-based Banzai program. Having worked in a financial services company catering to the wealthy, Vandagriff was amazed at how poorly some of his former clients coped with money.

"I realized how many clients of mine get into financial trouble … These are successful people, like professional athletes," he said. "But they couldn't get their mind around managing their money. If it's a big problem for rich people, then it's even more of struggle for ordinary folks."

That inspired him to start a financial literacy program for secondary school students. About 4,000 teachers in about 3,500 schools around the country use the program, he said. It was named the national curriculum of the year in 2010 by the Institute for Financial Literacy, a nonprofit organization.

The program is free for teachers through the sponsorship of local credit unions, Vandagriff said.

In the Tampa Bay area, Grow Financial Federal Credit Union sponsors the program in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Manatee counties.

Last year, Grow Financial sponsored the program in 42 middle schools and high schools, said Allen Milliron, Grow Financial's assistant vice president of business development.

After completing the program, students get a $20 certificate that they can take to Grow Financial and use to open an account.

"Several years ago, we were looking for ways to be able to improve financial literacy among high school students. We came upon Banzai and we like it," Milliron said. "This is how we give back to the community."

Susan Neff, a teacher at Clearwater High, uses the program to teach teen moms and a group of design students money management.

"Personal finance is one of the most important things I teach," Neff said. "For a lot of high school kids, I don't think they understand the big picture … And there are kids helping to contribute to their families' expenses. It's a huge spectrum, and I have to meet both of their needs."

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Shenita Long, who teaches business technology at Jennings Middle in Hillsborough County, said she uses the program with her sixth-grade students.

"They need a foundation to learn about the real world," she said. "They have to write checks, pay rent, deposit paychecks … my sixth-graders are learning about it early."

As for Gotte, she wants her students to start thinking clearly about income, purchases and debt.

"What I try to get them to understand is money is a very emotional topic," she said. "It should not be an emotional topic; it should be very rational."

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