MAKING A FINANCIALLY 'SMART TENNESSEE'
The statewide "Smart Tennessee" program teaches kindergarten through eighth-grade students how to manage their money. Over the past six years, the program has:
Reached a third of Tennessee elementary schools
Taught 85,000 students
Increased the scores on economic and financial literacy tests they give by 40 to 45 percent.
Source: Julie Heath, director of the University of Memphis' Center for Economic Education
Christopher Lee figures being 18 years old shouldn't stop him from investing.
The high school student managed to scrape together about $3,000, which he tucked safely away in a savings account. After a few hours in a Hamilton County Adult High School financial literacy class, he started thinking it might be better to have a portion of that money growing in some safe investments.
"I'm just putting my money away gradually," he said. "I didn't really think about investing."
State and local educators hope to get more young people thinking like Lee.
Save money. Set goals. Make smart investments.
To that end, Tennessee high school students are required to take a semester of financial literacy courses before graduating.
Lee grew up watching his grandmother run the family business. Dealing with finances has been a part of his life since he was a tyke, but he said he's still benefiting from the program.
"Even for me, it's important," he said. "I still didn't know certain things, so I know it was useful for people who haven't had it before."
Nan Morrison is president and chief executive officer of the Council for Economic Education, an organization that makes financial education presentations to high school classes across the county every year. It was one of her organization's presentations that got Lee thinking about investing.
Morrison said many students learn about finances from their family and peers. But all too often, out-of-school education isn't enough.
"We live in a complex world," she said. "We can't just learn as we go any more."
In the six years since "Smart Tennessee" was founded, Julie Heath, who oversees the program, said she's seen real results. The organization's testing shows a 45 percent improvement in financial literacy in the program's elementary school kids and a 40 percent bump for middle schoolers.
But, she said, more needs to be done.
"There are lots of demands on teachers' time." she said. "But I think the state needs to take a look at what is it we want our kids to graduate knowing."
Heath said companies lose money every day because their employees are enduring personal financial problems.
Gloria Moore, humanities supervisor for Hamilton County, also said financial education is of top importance. On top of mandated government and economics courses, teachers are encouraged to incorporate financial lessons in other courses such as history and math.
But expanding what the state already requires may add too heavy a burden on schools still adjusting to the latest round of economic testing requirements, she said.
"The difficulty we've had is it's like so many things that are mandated, but there's no real funding for it," Moore said.
After a Council for Economic Education presentation, Hamilton County Adult High School student Trey Hudgins said he'd be taking more economics classes. He wants to go to college, but he plans to take some time off to save up and avoid student loans.
He's already learned at least one important lesson, he said. "I really don't want debt."