Eradicating financial illiteracy is once again the focus of our Foolanthropy drive. Like last year, we're setting out to make a difference in our own backyard. To do so, 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. On top of that, 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?
No matter what the economy is doing, or which way the market winds blow, there's one thing all of us have in abundance: 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, the 13 Steps to Investing Foolishly.
Throughout the coming year, Motley Fool volunteers will visit Thurgood Marshall Academy to pay forward what we've learned about money. Since it's been a couple of years since some of us were in high school (a-hem), our field trip last year to the school we adopted proved very enlightening. Here's our report from our trip back to school.
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. Scholastic success and 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 1 in 3 students finishes high school within five years. Of those who do, only 1 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.
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
Remember what you did and did not know about finances when you were in high school? Neither did we. To help us with our first-day jitters, our student guide -- Markysha Dickens, a junior -- showed us around the school. Then we sat down to chat with five students -- a freshman, two sophomores, one junior, and one senior who was 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.
Kids these days ... they don't have it easy
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.
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. Not only do they not have an opportunity to save their earnings, but they're also charged a transaction fee each time they use the card.
On the bright side, these are curious kids. Shamir, a 10th 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 who live in an area where the average per-capita income is about $14,000.
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."
Where you, our community of Fools, come in
Maybe a handful of Motley 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 Fool.com during the campaign (Nov. 29 through Jan. 7), we'll give $0.10 to Thurgood Marshall Academy (up to $20,000). We're also donating $0.10 for every comment or "like" on our Facebook page, and for every new follower to our Twitter feed.
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.
The original version of this article was published in November 2009. It has been updated to reflect the latest trends in teen fashion.