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 fool.com 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.
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