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Schools hope financial literacy course pays dividends for kids

April 2, 2011

WOONSOCKET – It's been called the wise man's religion and the root of all evil. It can be cold and hard and still burn a hole in your pocket. It's bread, dough and cabbage all at the same time, unless you're bringing it home, in which case it's bacon.
Money can be confusing, even for grownups who are used to obsessing over it. Imagine what it's like for a child.
Melissa Bavoux does. And then she does something about it.
In her other life, Bavoux is a banker. But she's on a temporary detour from her regular job to help children in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods get an early start on learning about money – how to save it, how to spend it, and other dilemmas famous for tripping up people who are much older and, presumably, smarter than a fifth-grader.
“It just makes sense to start this at a young age,” says Bavoux. “A lot of the teachers like this program. They're parents themselves and they see the need for this type of education in public schools. It all comes down to accountability and personal responsibility.”
Citizens Bank, where Bavoux normally works as a senior loan representative, chooses one employee from its entire workforce every year to send on a three-month sabbatical to do community service work. The bank is paying Bavoux, this year's honoree, to implement a financial literacy program for youngsters in partnership with Connecting for Children and Families, a non-profit neighborhood-improvement group active in the Fairmount section.
She splits four days a week at the Kevin K. Coleman and Fifth Avenue elementary schools, traveling from class-to-class to spread the ABC's of sawbucks, sheckels and simolians. The message is reaching nearly 500 children from five to 11 years old.
On a recent afternoon at the Coleman school, a class of fifth-graders eagerly shot their hands in the air as Bavoux peppered them with questions. Where's a good place to save money? What's the difference between something you want and something you need? A clue: “You might want a pair of Air Jordans, but you might need a T-shirt,” she says.
Bavoux tells her students there are different places to save money, but a good one is a bank because the bank pays a cash incentive called interest. What happens if the bank gets robbed?
“That's the one question I get all the time,” Bavoux tells the students. “You still get to keep your money even if the bank is robbed. And the robber goes to jail.”
Ultimately, she says, how you use money is “about choices.” You don't always have to deny yourself the things you want for the things you need, she says. Sometimes you make a compromise. And even when you know what the right choice is, it could take a long time to get the money to follow through. It's important, she says, to set long-term goals.
“In another five or six years you'll be driving,” says Bavoux. “Maybe you'll want a car. Maybe you'll want to save for college.”
She gives her students homework. A sheet of white paper emblazoned with the heading, “My savings plan.” Hang it someplace where you can see it, she says, and write down some of the things you hope to buy someday.
Cora Fall, 11, says her parents give her financial advice at home sometimes, and it's not that different from what she hears Bavoux tell her in class. But somehow it sounds more convincing coming from Bavoux.
“I never really thought about how money can be really important sometimes,” says Fall. “It's actually a big priority. This kind of like cleared that up more.”
Zoya Tseytlin, the financial stability coordinator for Connecting for Children and Families, says there are a number of benefits to the financial literacy program. It frames math problems in a way children find more practical and easier to understand than traditional lessons, and it provides children with early exposure to positive values that will hold them in good stead as they grow older.
“It's a way to teach math in relation to life skills so they will be able to understand these issues later in life,” she says.
Whether to rent a house or buy one, why they need a job and the nature of credit are all issues that will have a bearing on how these children will spend their adults lives, she says.
A mother of two young boys, Bavoux says financial literacy should be part of the core curriculum in public elementary schools. She could hardly believe it recently when one of her boys came home from school and asked her what “wages” were.
“I was shocked,” she says.
Bavoux practices what she preaches in school at home. Every Wednesday there's “family finance night” – an occasion to get the children involved in discussing the essentials of money.
Raised in Minnesota, Bavoux lives in North Attleboro and has worked at Citizens Bank since 2006. She says she is thrilled to be the bank's 2011 community service representative, but she hardly seems like a surprising pick, given her background.
Bavoux says she she makes it a point to do volunteer work on behalf of the disadvantaged and downtrodden on a regular basis, and she is always looking for an opportunity to pitch in where needed. If there's nothing else on her schedule, she says, “Sometimes I'll take the easy way out and just do the soup kitchen thing at my church.”
Her children's financial literacy program was selected on a competitive basis by the Citizens Bank Community Outreach Team, a 15-member group of bank leaders.
“To have the opportunity to spend three months in the community getting paid for it was very intriguing to me,” she says. “The younger you teach them to be wise with their money the better it's going to be. These are concepts some adults don't know.”

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