Wichita school officials think personal-finance classes are essential, and they're developing a plan to require one for graduation.
"Our job is to prepare students for the real world," said Denise Wren, assistant superintendent for high schools.
"They need to know what to do when they're bombarded with all these credit card offers, how to budget, how to manage finances," she said. "Used to be, they didn't really think about it until they left (high school).... I think everyone agrees we need to reach them earlier."
Next month, Wren hopes to present school board members with a proposal that would increase Wichita's graduation requirements from 22 to 23 credits. The extra credit would include one semester of financial literacy and a semester of career or technical education. The change would take effect with the current sophomore class.
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If approved, it would mark the first increase in graduation requirements since 1984, when the district raised its required credits from 20 to 22.
That year, the school board added one credit each in math, science and social studies and cut the physical education requirement from two to one. The changes took effect with the graduating class of 1988.
Currently in Wichita, a diploma requires at least four units in language arts, three in social studies, three in math, three in science, one in physical education, one in fine arts and seven electives.
Financial literacy is an elective, usually offered through business, family and consumer science or social studies departments.
Jim Means, executive director of career and technical education, says the proposal to make financial literacy a required class is still being finalized. It reflects a push, he said, to battle against some recent economic problems.
"The things we've seen lately — the payday loans, the mortgages, the whole recession — just tells you again and again how important it is for students to have this foundation of knowledge," Means said.
A committee of teachers and local businesspeople developed a financial-literacy course that is being tested this year at four Wichita high schools. Juniors and seniors taking the course will learn about financial planning, banking, decision-making, goal-setting and consumer choices.
Eighteen-year-old Jordan Snide enrolled in financial management at Northwest High School this semester at her parents' suggestion. Snide has a debit card and a box of Elvis Presley checks, which she ordered because she thought they looked cool.
But until she took Patty Bess' class, she had never written a check or balanced her account.
"I had like $12, and I thought I had 100-something," she said. "I've always been horrible with finances, so I've learned a lot."
For more than a decade, educators and political leaders have urged U.S. high schools to make financial education a required course.
In 2002, the Kansas Legislature passed a law saying financial literacy should be taught at every grade level where applicable. Kindergartners and first-graders may count coins, for instance; older students might learn about budgeting or how interest works.
But in a 2008 survey by the state Department of Education, most teachers said they did not teach the topic. A proposal last year to make financial literacy a graduation requirement stalled in the state Legislature, partly over budget concerns.
Means, the technical-education director, said Wichita could set an example for other districts by requiring graduates to have at least one course in finance. The plan, if approved, would take effect with the class of 2013.
"What we're doing in Wichita may be an impetus to get that going (statewide)," Means said. "We're getting a lot of support from the business community here and across the state."
School board member Lynn Rogers said he supports students learning financial and vocational skills. But increasing graduation requirements is "a very big move," he said, and he wants to make sure the district is ready.
"It can be very complicated, adding classes to a high school schedule," Rogers said. "We'll have to sit down and look at all the different things that could be affected."
Before requiring a course, the district has to make sure it has enough teachers in the right buildings to enable every student to enroll, he said.
Jim Graham, president of the Kansas Council on Economic Education, said his group already plans to provide or assist with personal-finance courses in every Wichita high school next school year.
"We're not in favor of any unfunded mandates," said Graham, whose group is based at Wichita State University.
"In most cases we can provide instruction and resources at no additional cost to the district.... These skills are just so necessary for kids, whether they're going to go on to college or the work force. They need to be economically and financially literate."
Rogers, the board member, agreed, but added that parents and the business community should embrace the objective as well.
"Our goal is to provide an educated work force and citizenry, but schools can't be the only ones... working toward that," Rogers said. "This could be a step, but there's not a silver bullet."