Atwater students learn about budgeting, balancing checkbook and making ends meet

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comMarch 3, 2014 

— Atwater High School’s 430 juniors are taking part in a Wise Up financial literacy event that seeks to help them make smart financial decisions once they are on their own.

Students get a one-day overview of managing finances from the Educational Employees Credit Union, and then the fun starts – putting all they’ve learned into practice with an interactive portion in the school gym. The event is today and Wednesday.

Mandy Ballenger, the school’s associate principal for guidance, said financial literacy is not part of the regular curriculum, but it’s important information for students to understand.

“It’s engaging for them,” Ballenger said. “They (students) find it to be eye-opening and it helps them think about the future. With identity theft growing, they learn the importance of keeping their financial records secure.”

Sheryl Garman, Atwater High’s teacher-librarian, said students will learn about money management in a fun, interactive manner. This includes completing a check registry and keeping track of salary, bills and taxes.

“During the interactive portion, students are given their random starting salary and then proceed through various stations, buying their housing, transportation, utilities and luxuries,” Garman said. “Each station requires them to deduct money from their check registry and track expenses.

“Throughout, staff members are presenting students with unexpected life events. Students get an eye-opening view of some real-life situations,” she said.

The unexpected could be a flat tire on the car, which costs $100 to fix, a lost cellphone, unexpected home repairs, or a $200 bonus from work. Students roll dice to find out how many children they will have, what their salary will be, and the cost of utilities, groceries, gas and other essentials.

“They realize, oh, my gosh, they can’t afford a car or kids,” Garman said.

English teacher Sean Davis has participated in Wise Up for three years. He said it’s an opportunity for students to not only improve their financial literacy, but to better understand the realities of life.

Students often don’t think about managing money, Davis said, or the difference between wants and needs. When they do, he said, “it’s eye-opening. They need to understand that money comes in and money goes out.”

Tara Ramirez, who also teaches English, said students get an appreciation of what their parents go through to support their families, learning the difference between necessities and luxuries.

“Is it worthwhile? Absolutely,” Ramirez said. “It’s a really cool experience. Just the idea of a budget is a foreign concept.”

The Wise Up event is part of Atwater High’s six-year plan: a series of events and activities for students that relate to their four years of high school and two years after graduation, preparing them for college and careers, Garman said.

Lessons and activities related to academics, accountability and attitude occur each year a student attends school. Activities and topics include personal reflections, financial literacy, career exploration, technology integration, research projects, multimedia creations and interview skills.

Freshmen learn about different career paths. Sophomores have a declarations interview at which they give their career aspirations, and seniors have exit interviews that analyze how prepared they are for entering college or the workforce.

Principal Alan Peterson said the six-year plan was started by former Principal Linda Lucas and former business teacher Darlene Runsten about a dozen years ago.

“The original idea was to provide career research, résumé development, generally trying to make the educational process as relevant as possible,” Peterson said. “Over the past five years, we have refined that process to include an objective or outcome for each grade level. All students now have digital portfolios they develop over their four-year experience at AHS.”

Sun-Star staff writer Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or

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