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Photo by Neal C. Lauron/Genesis

ECON 101

Jobs | Teaching about money shouldn't wait until high school or college-and it's inner-city schools and a new economics program that are leading the way to elementary financial literacy

Issue: "All tied up," Sept. 24, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio-When fourth-grader Kadayah Keys casually stops by the store at Harambee Christian School here to buy a granola bar for her mid-morning snack, a lot more goes on than a simple commercial transaction.

Kadayah pays for her granola bar not with cash, nor even with an old-fashioned debit card. Instead, she quickly enters her student ID-and the transaction is cashless, cardless, and paperless. But she's not being taught some bad habits as a consumer: Kadayah, instead of charging a purchase to be paid back later, is simply deducting the cost of the bar from credit she has previously built up in a school account. Within the hour, she'll be checking the status of her account.

If you quizzed her carefully, Kadayah could probably tell you a half-dozen sophisticated details about how her mid-morning purchase affects her overall economic well-being. Kadayah could tell you about opportunity costs, compound interest, margin, and profit. She can do that because of a program called "Infusionomics"-a co-curricular approach now used by a small network of schools to equip inner-city boys and girls with the economic and financial literacy they need to thrive in the mainstream economy.

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Before the school day is over, Kadayah will have bumped into the all-but-invisible Infusionomics program at least a dozen more times. There's no Infusionomics class to go to. No Infusionomics lecture. No Infusionomics textbook. But the ideas and the emphasis are always there-just like economic concepts are always present in every facet of real life. Through Infusionomics, discussion of economic theory regularly sneaks into the math program, into history and literature, and into science as well.

To help Kadayah keep track of so complex a cause-and-effect system, a school-wide computer system deftly augments Infusionomics with a system called "Economis" that she, along with the other 104 Harambee students, access and exit repeatedly through the school day. "Did I get extra 'bling' in my personal account," a student may ask himself, "for that A I earned in music yesterday?" ("Bling" is the unit of exchange in the Harambee economy-and different individual schools use different approaches.) "How many bling did I lose in my account for being tardy for gym?" Because the answers have such practical consequences, affecting their ability to buy and sell, students pay close attention.

By design, Infusionomics and Economis steer the whole school experience away from some abstract other-worldly academic approach. They place students (as in real life) within a context of checking accounts, savings accounts, taxes, interest, the in-school store, and even an in-school profit-making business.

This sophisticated and holistic instructional approach is happening here at Harambee-and at half a dozen other schools around the nation-because of the unusual cooperation of a handful of visionary individuals and organizations. They include:

• StreetSchool Network-a loose nationwide gathering of mostly private Christian schools ministering to minorities in inner-city settings.

• The Powell Center for Economic Literacy, based in Charlottesville, Va.

• Sagamore Institute, a market-oriented think tank in Indianapolis, Ind.

• Central Ohio Youth for Christ of Columbus, Ohio, and its "renaissance man" director, Scott Arnold.

Not to be ignored: Private donors over the last five years have invested more than $2.5 million in the project. These funders value collaborative ventures and have been the glue holding together such a multi-party team. All the key players lament the dismal level of American economic and financial literacy. As Sagamore's Amy Sherman reports, "In one recent study of economic awareness among high school seniors, the average test score was 47.5 percent-a solid F. Real hope for America's long term economic future rests with the next generation."

Against that backdrop, the project funders began trying six years ago to link the efforts of several of the organizations. The Powell Center in Virginia, for example, had done good work developing a secular, K-12 curriculum in economic literacy-but no one outside the elite Collegiate School in Richmond was using it. Might it be suitable-or adaptable-for some of the inner-city kids with whom StreetSchool Network (SSN) and Sagamore Institute were working? And what would it take to integrate those efforts with a specifically biblical framework of thinking?

In 2006, Powell invited teachers from the SSN to Richmond to receive training in teaching economics. The urban practitioners were skeptical at first, but then began to grasp the profound value of what they were learning. SSN vice president Todd Goble recalls, "We started realizing that these principles-about cost-benefit analysis and opportunity costs and short- and long-term consequences-were incredibly relevant for the life skills we're trying to equip our kids with. This is the kind of practical knowledge that can help them climb out of poverty."

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