Fairfax City, Va., has a place where 13-year-old students go to become adults for a day.
They choose what kind of car they would drive if they made $65,000 per year and had three children, or what kind of clothes they would buy if they made $30,000.
The students can only leave if they figure out how to balance their monthly budget.
The Junior Achievement Finance Park, which opened in October 2010 on the property of Frost Middle School, teaches eighth-grade students personal finance by simulating them in the real world, according to Steve Longley, vice president of development and marketing of Junior Achievement of Greater Washington.
“They say after, I didn’t realize how hard my parents have to work,” Longley said. “... Many children think that their parents are ATMs.”
Standing in the middle of 150 students in the $4.375 million building last year, Montgomery schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said he wanted Montgomery students to have the same experience, said Ed Grenier, president and CEO of Junior Achievement of Greater Washington.
The two shook hands.
The “park,” which might cost between $3 million and $6 million, could be built within Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Silver Spring as the school is rebuilt for the 2017-18 school year.
The school system will be asking for extra staff and community input before a final decision is made about adding the program, according to a school system memo.
The program would include about 20 hours of financial literacy to middle school curriculum, with the day at the park as the culminating event, said Erick Lang, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs.
Junior Achievement programs, which teach basic financial concepts such as budgeting, stocks and taxes, have been in Montgomery County Public Schools for years, Lang said.
Maryland law mandates students complete units in financial literacy, and adding this new program would expand the curriculum and make it more focused, he said.
Details of how the program would be run or funded still are being talked through, he said. The school system is looking at Fairfax’s program as a model; there are 15 financial parks throughout the nation.
In Fairfax, all 14,000 eighth-grade students spend one day at the park — a “mini-city” that has several “storefronts” that correlate with personal budget lines such as home and car ownership, bills, insurance, clothing, shopping, schooling and more. Students are given a life situation card that includes salary, age and children. They must visit each room and make decisions to balance their budget with the help of about 20 volunteers, most of whom are parents, Longley said.
The Fairfax County Public School system is in a 15-year agreement with Junior Achievement.
To pay for the program, Junior Achievement must raise about $500,000 annually, Longley said. Businesses could rent out storefronts for about $24,000 per year, and the school system contributes $20 per student annually, he said. There also are other sponsoring opportunities, private donors and grants.
Before students get to the park, they spend one hour per day for five or six weeks in their civics or math classes learning about concepts that will help them once they get there.
“What it is doing is giving our students real life experiences,” said Patti Winch, middle school social studies specialist at Fairfax County Public Schools. “... I think practical application is important. Teachers can say you are going to see why you need to learn this and you are going to understand that the choices you make are going to impact what you are able to do with your life, and maybe even what your kids are going to do with their lives.”
Winch, who has volunteered at the park, said students leave knowing more about the tough decisions their parents make daily.
“This one student decided that they would shop at Goodwill, but their child would wear designer clothes,” Winch said, laughing.
She remembers another student who said he would give up the Internet to meet his budget. When a volunteer questioned him, the student agreed he couldn’t live without it.
“But then he said, my wife isn’t going to be able to have a cell phone,” she said.
The day ends in a career room, where students begin to think about the career they want, and need to live the lifestyle they would like, Longley said.
“It may even help the dropout rate,” he said. “It shows them that you can stay in school, get a job and the money you have can help you succeed. If we can teach kids how to do that, we can show them that their dreams can be financed.”
Parents love the program, he said.
“As a parent myself, I know that if my kids came home and thought about the day-to-day realities about getting money, it is like a million bucks,” he said.