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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Money In The Real World: Dallas School Teaches Financial Skills Kids Can Actually Use

One Dallas school is devoted to helping its students get hands-on experience with money. Conrad High School is home to many low-income and refugee students, and some of them help support their families financially. Teachers says that means learning about budgeting, saving and investing can't wait.

Students in the finance academy at Conrad take classes like "accounting" and "stocks and securities." They watch a stock ticker scroll in real time, and they're fast tracked for paid internships at local corporations.

Transportation planning

On this particular afternoon, students, not teachers, are planning off-site visits to local companies, like Dave & Busters and Men's Wearhouse. They have to figure out what time they can leave campus, when they can squeeze in lunch, and how they're going to travel.

They're considering the train, the bus, Uber, bike shares, even walking. Conrad senior Brenda Martinez takes charge at the front of the class plotting out potential routes and calculating costs on the whiteboard.

She plans to study business in college. Her family is low-income, and she hopes studying finance at Conrad might put her on a different track.

"My mom and my dad, they divorced. I live with my mom and she's a mother of four that just provides for all four of us, basically," she says. "We only ask for my dad's money, like, if we really need it."

Helping her family

Her paid internship over the summer at Capital One meant she could pitch in with family expenses. More importantly, what Martinez has learned at Conrad has helped her educate her loved ones.

"When my mom she tells me to, 'Oh, can you help me out with this, with the bills? I really don't understand it.' Here, we go over like 'Oh, what does this mean when the bank sends you this? What can a debit card do, what can a credit card do?'" Martinez explains.

That's the whole idea behind the finance academy. Help students understand stocks and insurance, cultivate an interest in business and entrepreneurship and teach real financial literacy.

"The earlier we can get them involved with understanding how their work works with their money, etc., maybe we could increase our overall national average of saving and budgeting," says Janel Humphries, who runs the Academy of Business and Finance at Conrad.

Financial skills kids can use

She says at this school more than 50 different languages are spoken, due to a large population of refugee students. So building financial literacy skills sometimes means starting at the very beginning.

"When you talk about concepts and operations of money, that is zero for a good population of our students when they first join us," Humphries says.

That means teaching some kids to recognize currency and make change, which is why Humphries lobbied hard to get two ATMs installed inside the school.

"In having the strongest relationship with your money, sometimes you just need to see it," she says.

A working bank

The next step is opening a functioning bank on campus — a satellite branch of an existing financial institution. Conrad already has the space cleared out; there's seating, teller windows, even a boardroom. A few years ago, it was a a pretend bank that circulated what they called "Conrad Cash." You could trade it for snacks, a good spot in the cafeteria line or extra credit.

Humphries says that was a good start, but these students have jobs and pay bills. They need the real thing.

"There's a good chunk of students here that might be head of or co-head of household. So once they do finally figure out how they're bringing in money, now there's a whole issue of budgeting, etc. And that's what we're missing for students in this area," she says. "We have a lot of students that help support their family."

Christopher Lainez is one of them.

"Yeah, money's really tight. My mom works at a factory and my dad doesn't, because he's disabled. My mom is only one that brings, really, like a flow of income in," he says.

Becoming a saver

That's why Lainez is looking for work. He's already had two paid internships through the finance academy and loves having money in the bank. He's not a spender.

"I'm keeping my money, I'm saving it. And due to the two internships I've earned like $3,600. And I've budgeted that, and I still have over $1,000 now. Anytime Mom needs money I'm like, 'Hey, sure. I'll pay it,'" he says.

For the most part, these students don't get a weekly allowance, and they're not spending the money they do have on nights out with their friends. They're helping make life easier for their families, and hopefully, forming habits that will brighten their futures, too.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.