The Fool's High School Field Trip

Eradicating financial illiteracy is once again the focus of our Foolanthropy drive, and this year we're focusing on making a Foolish difference in our own backyard. To do that, we're going back to school ... literally.

We're donating money to a local public charter high school in one of Washington, D.C.'s most impoverished neighborhoods. But that's not the only way we're giving this year. We'll also be paying it forward the best way we know how: by volunteering to teach these students (and their parents) how to tackle the money issues they face today -- and the ones they'll face in the future.

What's better than giving away money?
It's been a tough year financially for everyone, but one thing we still have in abundance is knowledge. Paying it forward is such an important part of our mission as investors and individuals that we devote an entire lesson about how to spread financial smarts in our Foolish Magna Carta, our 13 Steps to Investing Foolishly.

Fool volunteers will throughout the year be holding court at Thurgood Marshall Academy to pay forward what we've learned about money. Since it's been a couple of years (a-hem) since we were in high school, we recently took a field trip to the school we "adopted" for this year's Foolanthropy drive. Here's our report.

A school that gives second chances
Thurgood Marshall Academy's (TMA) mission is simple: Teach children how to solve complex problems, develop a voice of their own, and ultimately, succeed in college.

More than 90% of the students come from D.C.'s Ward 7 and Ward 8, where scholastic success and earning a college degree are not in the cards for most who grow up there. Ward 8 has the highest rate of children in poverty in the district and is easily one of the toughest areas in the nation's capital. Only one in three students finishes high school within five years, and of those who do, only one in 20 earns a college degree within five years of graduation.

Acceptance to the school is on a first-come, first-serve basis. Demand is high -- TMA scores third-highest in tests of all city high schools with open enrollments. Innovative programs such as self-assessment tests and software classes help the students get the extra edge they need to succeed. One hundred percent of students in the five classes that have graduated since the school was founded in 2001 were accepted to college.

But it's not all classrooms and teachers -- these kids have a high ambition to achieve, and the ones we met all expressed their gratefulness at being given the opportunity to attend TMA.

Money from a high-schooler's perspective
To help us with our first-day jitters, our student guide -- Markysha Dickens, a junior -- showed us around the school.

It was hard to remember what we did and didn't know about finances when we were their ages. So we met with five students -- a freshman, two sophomores, one junior, and one senior -- getting ready to head off to college next year.

It's good to see that some things never change: Just like when we were kids, they were happy to have the free pass from class, even if it meant chatting up a couple of Fools.

We asked how the recession had affected them and their families. It has, in small and not-so-small ways. Some go out to movies less frequently; others chip in financially at home by covering utility bills and helping pay for groceries when they have money they've earned.

Getting a head start
There's still a lot for them to learn about even the basics of managing money. Only one had a savings account. Only one knew what an interest rate was. We couldn't help but give a brief lecture about the importance of budgeting and the perils of credit card debt. When we explained how a $20 pizza could end up costing them $100, it got their attention.

We also learned that the finance industry doesn't discriminate against underprivileged children -- they were getting fleeced like the rest of us. Their summer pay (for jobs arranged through the school) was given to them on debit cards, so not only do they not have an opportunity to save their earnings, they're also charged a transaction fee each time they use the card.

On the bright side, these are curious kids -- Shamir, a tenth grader, said he had been looking for a book to teach him how to manage his own finances. Terrance, the college-bound senior, asked for advice on how to handle student loans. Ramesha, an 11th grader, said that when she's tempted to buy something she doesn't need, she gives her mom her wallet and tells her not to give it back until they get home. Pretty mature for a group of kids that live in an area where the average per-capita income is about $14,000.

How's this for some perspective?
An essay written by another Thurgood Marshall Academy senior reinforces why we continue to dedicate ourselves to eradicating financial illiteracy: The student writes: "It's really amazing that we can be in debt being the United States. We are supposed to be a very powerful country. Maybe things will get better, but I don't think it will be anytime soon. I really feel sorry for the generation after mine."

Maybe a handful of Fools teaching money lessons in one D.C. public charter school can't save the next generation from the financial missteps of the previous ones. But student-by-student, we're going to do our best. And you can help too.

We encourage you to carry on this Foolish spirit of volunteerism in your own community -- at any worthy organization. In challenging economic times like these, there are most certainly causes that could benefit from your time and attention. And there's still a way for you to partner with us -- for every article comment on during the campaign (Nov. 25 through Jan. 8), we'll give $0.10 to Thurgood Marshall Academy (up to $20,000).

So please, feel free to use this opportunity to discuss the importance of financial literacy, volunteerism, and the ways you're giving back to your own community. We'd love to hear what you have to say.

Dayana Yochim and Jordan DiPietro are looking forward to your comments. Remember, it's for the children! The Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (19)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 26, 2009, at 2:17 AM, yeilBagheera wrote:

    Thanks for supporting a public school. I hope that the success of this academy can send ripples of change through the other schools in the district.

    "Acceptance to the school is on a first-come, first-serve basis" sounds even-handed, but I realize that not all high school students or their parents are aware of such opportunities. So, there is some self-selection going on, in favor of students who still have hope.

    Ideas for further lessons

    Is there a way to minimize the fees of debit cards? Maybe make a monthly transfer to a real savings account? Where is the nearest bank or credit union anyway?

  • Report this Comment On November 27, 2009, at 12:51 PM, Sadalmelik wrote:

    I would love to see a financial education class in every high school, or even middle schools, where the kids are still eager for new knowledge. If I felt the least bit qualified to teach them, I'd do it myself after I retire in a few years. When I was in HS I was taught the basics of balancing a check book, what a debit and a credit is, and a few other basic facts. Of all the adults I knew, only my dad ever talked about stock markets, and it was sort of kept quiet because my mom called it gambling.

    My own children got even less financial education than I did at school. I'm glad they both took financial advice from their parents, and I'm happy to say neither one has built up any bad debt except a car loan my daughter got snookered into because she wouldn't be patient enough for me to look at it. I'm afraid that far too many of their classmates are simply following in the debt plagued footsteps of their parents.

    That's my 10 cents worth, Thurgood Marshall Friends! (TMF).

  • Report this Comment On December 01, 2009, at 2:51 PM, munnime wrote:

    My sister-in-law teaches math and science to 5th and 6th graders in a SC low-income area. She's a firm believer in making lessons applicable to real-life.

    Many of her students envision themselves getting a "cool" job right out of high-school, so they can have a place of their own to party, and car to go where and when they want.

    She gives them a little dip in reality by having them figure a budget based on the average wage for a HS grad in SC, paying average rent for the area, and a car payment for their dream ride, after taxes and expenses (like food!).

    When she sees that it is dawning on the students that they won't have near enough income to support the desired lifestyle, it's easy for her to make the case for vocational training or even college.

    I wish I'd had a teacher like her - I'd have chosen a different major!

    My 10 cents worth!

  • Report this Comment On December 04, 2009, at 12:26 PM, ET69 wrote:

    My 10 cents worth,

    Other than my blue collar parents there were only two places I recieved financial 'education'. #1. The army when they had every recruit open a savings account where we immediately deposited our pay. #2 at my Alma matter Berkeley when I was studying political science and of course we studied Marx among others. Frankly many of the college students were just as lost as the guys in the army!

  • Report this Comment On January 11, 2011, at 1:18 PM, agapao12 wrote:

    It is so important to teach kids finances. My 13 year old son understands finances better than many college grads which is a shame. The thing is I would like to teach the kids in our middle and high school. Are there ways to approach the school so they would be willing for me to do this?

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Foolanthropy 2010

“With an innovative, deserving partner in Thurgood, we’re focusing our efforts where Fools can make a real difference,” says Motley Fool Co-founder and CEO Tom Gardner. This holiday season, help The Motley Fool give disadvantaged students a superior education.

To learn more about our adopted school, or to make a donation, click here.

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