Training teenagers to deliver financial literacy workshops to their peers and families is one of the challenges Michael Roberts faces daily working with the Children’s Aid Society’s Hope Leadership Academy teen center in Central Harlem.
The diverse group includes students that are homeless or in foster care, are re-entering the school system, and others whose families are in crisis. Because of those economic and emotional challenges, Roberts says financial literacy education is even more important to the teens at the center.
"Financial literacy means different things for different people depending where you are in the economic population. Financial literacy means being literate the financial world you have to operate in," said Roberts, who oversees the Hope Leadership Academy as the Assistant Division Director, City and Country Branches of the Children’s Aid Society in New York.
The Hope Leadership Academy was created in the aftermath of September 11th to help New York City youth address the violence, victimization and hopelessness affecting their every day lives. The educators at the center interact with 350 teens each year and offer programs to adolescents including academics, arts, college preparation, employment, technology and the most recent addition, financial literacy education, which launched in 2009. A select group of over 40 teenagers aged 14-18 follow the intensive curriculum that ends with them learning the skills to become peer trainers.
When trained students started teaching their families at home, parents were taken aback at first. They said, 'You want me to talk about finances with my kids?' But these kids have the tools and support to handle talking about a difficult adult topic," said Roberts.
Some students are in homes where parents are losing jobs, 401Ks, retirement, funds—everything is compromised in the family finances. "That is why financial literacy is so important," Roberts said, for both students and their parents. "If they have the skills, they can plan and rebuild."
One of the more popular skills that students learned and taught to their families at home was creating a budget. "It has been a big winner," he said. Students use a variety of curriculum from various educational sources, and tailor it to "keep it real".
"They'll tell me if something sounds corny and will put their own voice to it to help define the curriculum," Roberts said, noting they teach their peers in both English and Spanish.
The Hope Leadership Academy offers teens academic, employment, arts and technology training as well as a college preparation and scholarship program called Educational Excellence Creating Empowered Leaders (E.X.C.E.L). That program assists students with the academic, social, cultural and financial preparation for college. One of the direct benefits of the financial literacy training is that these high school graduates are better prepared to make financial decisions as they navigate the world of higher education. The program delves into the confusing topic of student loans, helping students understand and manage the debt they accrue for an education. Currently, it has 109 students in college, with 24 expected to graduate in 2010.
In the end, Roberts said the financial literacy and other training the high school teens receive at the center "gives them a safe place to process their feelings on violence and victimization, and shows them how to derive strength from their experiences so that they can feel empowered rather than hopeless."
When Roberts started submitting proposals to get the financial literacy program launched two years ago, the response was, "Isn’t that a complex issue for a young person? Still, do we wait until they are in financial difficulty to talk about it?"
"A crisis created the opportunity to reach these teens," he noted. "Hopefully, this program can begin to minimize the financial crises for the next generation. "
Practical Money Skills commends Roberts and his staff at the Hope Leadership Academy for their contributions to financial literacy.