Making a Difference: Money Doesn't Grow on Trees

Economic education helps Island students improve decision making.

No, Michael Staffaroni  isn’t  one of a set of triplets, but  sometimes feels like he does the work of three. Here he runs through his typical day as a history teacher at Kapolei High School.

Photo Montage: Scott Kubo

News of the recession has usually been negative. But one nonprofit is using all the talk of money and the economy to its advantage, to help students learn basic finance principles. Whether it’s a history class on the Great Depression, class readings of the Berenstein Bears or learning about algorithms, the Hawaii Council on Economic Education (HCEE)is helping teachers work economics into their lessons.

“If we can teach a child to understand [financial concepts], that opens up a whole new world when it comes to decision making,” says Kristine Castagnaro, the council’s executive director. “Economics applies to everything we do.”

The HCEE was established in 1965 and is affiliated with the national Council for Economic Education. With funding from local businesses, the Excellence in Economics Act and foundations, it has implemented several programs to help hundreds of teachers incorporate economics into their existing curriculum and inspire students to learn the subject in an interesting way.

One of the nonprofit’s most successful programs is the Stock Market Simulation, which began in 2004 and this school year drew in 6,191 student participants, grades three through 12. Teachers first participate in workshops on personal finance, investing basics and advanced investing. Then, for 10 weeks, students invest fictional money into a stock market simulation tied to the real stock market. The program is free through funding from the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.

Another popular program is Economics Through the Eyes of Children for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Students draw posters for a calendar on six economic concepts, such as goods and services. The council then selects 12 drawings to be featured in a calendar, sponsored by the Hawaii USA Federal Credit Union. “This is a really easy, nonthreatening way to introduce economics to younger students,” says Castagnaro, adding that more than 1,100 kids drew posters this year.

The vehicles for economic education are teachers. In 2004 HCEE’s board of directors made it a goal that every high-school graduate in Hawaii have some basic economic understanding—from capitalism to balancing a checkbook. Because economics isn’t a required course to graduate, HCEE decided to approach schools statewide—both public and private—to recruit teachers. Three years later, the Economics and Leadership Cadre was born. Teachers go through an 18-month economic training program in which they learn how to integrate economics into courses they’re already teaching.

HCEE ended the cadre’s first class of more than 20 participating teachers this May and has already selected the next round of teachers to participate in the fall. The idea is that eventually there will be two teachers per public high school that advocate for economic education.

Michael Staffaroni is one of those advocates. A 10th grade U.S. history teacher at Kapolei High School, Staffaroni has already applied economics to his lessons plans. With materials from the council, Staffaroni ties in the events of the Great Depression by teaching his students about the Federal Reserve and how it responded during the Depression, and, more recently, to Sept. 11.

“You have to draw the connections and find a way to view something from an economic standpoint,” says Staffaroni.

He says that his students have responded, with an increased interest in his history lessons and also personal finance. In fact, he won the council’s 2008 Economics Teacher of the Year award.

“We’re not training students just to graduate high school, we’re training them to become productive citizens,” he says. “To do that you have to understand how money works.” He hopes to see economics become a required high school course in the future.

To better prepare Hawaii’s students—as well as their families—HCEE is holding its first ever Personal Finance Expo at the Blaisdell Exhibition Hall Aug. 15 and 16. “The whole family can walk in the door, spend a couple of hours with us and walk out with increased financial literacy,” says Castagnaro.

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Head to the Blaisdell next month for HCEE’s Personal Finance Expo Aug. 15 and 16.