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Oakton High School freshman Madelynne Norton, 14, took a test Monday to see what careers might suit her in the future.

Sitting in a computer lab for her Economics and Personal Finance class, she and 27 other students clicked through the questionnaire, which included 35 questions on their skills and 72 questions on their interests. Students also were asked to rank a list of 25 “value” subjects that ranged from job security to being treated fairly by their employer.

“This shows us what we might be interested in career wise,” Madelynne said, adding being a nurse was among her top picks.

The test marks the beginning of a unit on finding jobs, which is part of the course’s goal of preparing students for life after high school. The unit will end with students having searched for jobs within their career field, researched the company they are seeking employment from, preparing resumes and finally sitting for a mock-interview conducted by a teacher.

“I thought it was going to be torture,” Madelynne said of the class. “It’s actually a pretty chill class. I think it’s kind of cool because it simulates real life. It teaches you how to buy a car and rent an apartment … Things we’ll be doing after high school.”

Students said, so far, the course unit on buying a car is their favorite, mostly because of the choices they were allowed to make. Much of the course curriculum is through an online textbook, which — for the car unit — allowed students to pick from a selection of cars ranging from the safe and economic to the luxurious and high-priced.

“I liked working on the car loan project,” said freshman Julia Bruce, 14. She chose a 2005 Toyota Prius.

“We went on a website that showed a bunch of cars and we had to pick one and calculate how we were going to pay for it.”

Several students said they chose the more expensive, sporty cars at first, but soon learned these dream purchases might have to wait until later in life.

Learning about buying a car, renting an apartment, handling student loans, understanding the stock market and more are part of the curriculum for the economics and personal financial course.

The course is a requirement mandated by the Virginia General Assembly during its 2009 session. Virginia students who entered high school as freshmen this fall must complete the required course before graduating. The course, however, can be completed anytime during high school.

So far, Economics and Personal Finance has been implemented at 24 of the 27 regular and alternative public high schools in Fairfax County.

“Some principals — because we recommended that it be taken junior or senior year — decided to hold off on offering it,” said Beth Downey, the school system’s manager of Business and Information Technology. Schools that opted to delay offering the course this year are Falls Church, Lee and Madison high schools and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

However, Downey added the school system has offered a similar financial literacy course as an elective for years.

“The program started probably six or seven years ago as a finance class,” she said. “And a few years ago the state changed the curriculum requirement to personal finance.”

Oakton teacher Brandon McCulla taught economics and personal finance for the first time last year, and is teaching it again this year. He said this year’s class has more freshmen because of the new requirement. In his class of 28 students, there are 16 freshman, five sophomores, one junior and six seniors.

“For the upperclassmen that take this, it’s really about the money management,” McCulla said. “It focuses a lot on the personal finance element. Budgeting is a big part of that. Balancing a checkbook, savings accounts … We do a stock market simulation, the kids get really excited about that.”

Fellow teacher Luke Haen said the class is probably more appropriately timed for upperclassmen.

“It’s more relevant to them,” he said. “They grasp it easier because they think, ‘I have bills to pay or whatever.’”

The teachers said it also is more common for juniors and seniors to have cars and jobs, so they understand the cost of gasoline and the value of the dollar.

Senior Gabriel Torres, 17, said he signed up for the class because he wants to be a responsible college spender.

“[Because of] the feeling of independence and being away from home, I think, I would be more prone to spending money,” Torres said. The class is applicable to seniors because of the financial decisions they will need to make next year, he added.

Senior Shane Forrester, 17, agreed.

“I’m going off to college and I want to know how to manage money and stuff,” Forrester said.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) recently spoke with the Virginia Board of Education about the implementation of this financial literacy course, saying teaching fiscal responsibility is an important addition to high school curriculum.

“I think it’s important that young people, when they graduate … be either career or college ready but also have mastered or have had access to at least the basic life skills,” McDonnell said during a Board of Education meeting Sept. 22. Although approved in 2009, the implementation of the requirement was waived for a school year because school systems were facing budget shortfalls.

“I know we implemented a requirement for financial literacy, although we deferred that [Standard of Learning exam] for financial and other reasons,” McDonnell said. “But I’m just wondering when you look at what’s happened in this country over the last five years and a lot of financial decisions that have been made by individuals, by corporations, by Wall Street, how much more focus do we need to put on making sure people have a basic understanding of finances and checkbooks and balancing budgets, and how the stock market works.”

There are no plans for a SOL exam to be given to students enrolled in the economics and financial literacy course, according to the state Department of Education.

The course is something McCulla said he could have benefited from in high school.

“My school did not offer a personal finance course. I tell [students] all the time they’re lucky … We do a great thing with credit cards where we teach them the dangers of debt and the benefits [of having cards].”

McCulla said the goal of the course is to send students into the world financially literate so parents “know that their students are going to be OK and they don’t have to worry so much.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com