Financial Literacy Spotlight: Olney Charter High School
What can we learn from an innovative Philadelphia high school?
It’s 2020 and financial literacy still isn’t a national requirement for students. In fact, only 21 states require a high school course in personal finance.
Yet, personal finance experts say that kids who learn to manage money at a young age are better equipped to handle their finances as adults. Educators at Olney Charter High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania seem to understand this.
Hailed as one of the most innovative financial literacy programs in the country by MarketWatch, Olney Charter High School takes a radical new approach to financial education: It gives the students paychecks. This provides hands-on experience for students and has resulted in a wildly popular program.
So what’s the secret behind the Olney program’s success? Here’s its story and what we can learn from it.
Where Pennsylvania stands on economic education
Located in a north Philadelphia neighborhood, Olney Charter High School is tackling financial literacy head-on despite the state’s slow progress on legislation. At Olney, personal finance classes are offered only as an elective — similar to other high schools in Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, economic education is part of the K-12 curriculum, and all school districts must implement these standards. Unfortunately, that’s where personal finance education ends. Pennsylvania does not require high schools to offer a financial education course or require students to take one.
The good news is that there is incremental progress occurring within the state. In September of 2019, Pennsylvania officials unanimously approved legislation that would allow public school students to apply personal finance credits toward high school graduation requirements. This is a small, but significant step.
A look at Olney Charter High School’s program
Dan LaSalle founded Olney Charter School’s personal finance program in the fall of 2015.
Students who enroll in the program commit to taking three personal finance classes and then have the option to work at the school. Students can make between $50 to $5,000 for teaching, tutoring, or leading clubs. Hours are flexible, so that working doesn’t interrupt a student’s educational responsibilities.
Olney’s personal finance program is unique, because it is the only one in the country that pays high school students to work. Armed with a paycheck, students are then guided through the banking process — opening checking and savings accounts. This is a huge achievement, considering many of the students’ families don’t have bank accounts.
The man behind the program
LaSalle was a 30-year-old English teacher at the time of the program’s inception.
Understanding the importance of personal finance, LaSalle entered a teacher grant competition provided by the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders. According to its website, the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders provides the Teacher-Leader Collaborative Grants program with $5,000 to $15,000 to address a school-specific challenge to student learning.
LaSalle, who is now the school’s assistant vice principal, ultimately won $15,000 in funding to start Olney’s personal finance program.
According to its website, Olney Charter High School is “committed to establishing, preserving, and empowering [its] students with a caring and high-quality education.” Olney also “look[s] to inspire [its] students to become global thinkers and conscious leaders as they actively persevere towards excellence.”
Educators at Olney embody the school’s motto. And LaSalle, the man behind the program, has proved it.
How does the school fund the program?
LaSalle continues to fundraise in order to pay a salary to enrolled, working students. In 2019, he raised $88,500 from individual donors. He has raised more than $100,000 for 2020.
By assuming each student will earn an average of $500, he determines how many students can enroll. Thanks to donations, LaSalle can enroll about 200 students in 2020 — a drastic increase from the 30 students who enrolled in the first year of the program.
The numbers don’t lie. In fact, they point toward the unmatched popularity and success of this innovative personal finance program.
Why is the personal finance program important?
Olney became a charter school in 2011 and has just more than 2,000 students. The racial makeup of the school is 60% Hispanic and 32% black. In 2012, it had a 50% graduation rate, and by 2019, it was on track to have a 70% graduation rate.
The 2018 median household income in Olney’s zip code of 19120 is $43,744 — compared to $60,293 in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. That places Olney in a low-income bracket, with students who have a higher risk for financial illiteracy.
“We’re a low-income school. Some kids don’t get allowances. Some are on food stamps and 100% get free lunches. With this program, kids can leave school with a few thousand dollars,” LaSalle told Steven Kutz of MarketWatch.
Olney High School educators favor a real-world approach to teaching personal finance. Students here learn how to handle personal finances responsibly by earning a paycheck, opening a bank account, and investing in their future.
“You can come from humble beginnings, live frugally, invest as much as you can, save 10% to 20% of your paycheck, invest in low-cost ETFs, and become a millionaire,” LaSalle said.
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