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[caption id="attachment_51565" align="alignright" width="437"] John McLaughlin, RCU's loss recovery and collateral manager, discusses financial safety at the spring 2011 Financial Literacy Academy. (Duncan Garrett photo, courtesy RCU)[/caption]

NORTH BAY -- At a time of historic strain on funding for schools in California, a number of local and national efforts are under way to support training in what many say is an important and often overlooked life skill for young adults -- personal finance.

It’s an issue that has drawn attention from the likes of the White House and California schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson -- that a marked lack of money management skills helped fuel a surge in consumer debt in recent years, besieging personal finances and slowing down the nation’s economic recovery.

Yet despite that high level of support for financial literacy efforts, education officials said the solution is not as simple as creating a required financial literacy curriculum in California. Mandated courses come with mandated costs -- costs that not every school district can afford.

“Every time we mandate a course, it’s $1 million dollars,” said Nancy Miller, director of career pathways and community outreach at Santa Rosa City Schools. Without the passage of statewide tax measures, that district could face an $8 million cut in the next fiscal year, she said.

In lieu of a mandated course and in an approach advocated at the state and national level, schools in the North Bay have chosen to integrate financial literacy into their academic offerings, embracing the topic while pursuing partnerships with nonprofits and financial institutions that enhance those efforts at no cost to districts.

The approaches vary, ranging from individual instructors integrating financial literacy into lesson plans to day-long sessions hosted off-site. Yet regardless of the methodology, a growing number of educators agree that the training is essential for the future financial health of students.

“You can go to any high school in Sonoma County and ask for a show of hands of anyone who has someone close to them who has financial challenges. You’ll see a lot of them,” said Rebecca Gallagher, education specialist in the Sonoma County Office of Education and California board member for the national financial literacy group, the Jump$tart Coalition. “I think it’s important.”

Only 48.3 percent of the country’s high school students were found to be financially literate in 2008, the lowest level in 10 years of surveys and the most recent comprehensive survey data available from Jump$tart. The organization indicates that 24 states have some sort of financial literacy curriculum mandate, and four of those states require at least one semester devoted to personal finance.

Addressing that issue in the North Bay, groups working with schools to enhance financial literacy education include the national nonprofit Jump$tart, which works to coordinate other groups, and the international Junior Achievement, as well as Santa Rosa-based Redwood Credit Union, Solano County-based Travis Credit Union and the California Society of CPAs.

In Santa Rosa’s school district, both Montgomery and Santa Rosa high schools have implemented a yearlong elective course for juniors called “Money Matters.” Created three years ago as a subset of the district’s career pathways program, the course features 180 hours of instruction and focuses on skills such as debt management, investing and financial planning, Ms. Miller said.

“We had so many students who were coming out of college with such severe debt that they would basically never be homeowners,” she said. “We try to do exercises with them that are realistic — we have them build a budget.”

While Ms. Miller said that it is too early to gauge the impact of the young program, demand has grown. Piner High School, another district school, is expected to begin offering the course in the fall.

In addition to the Money Matters course, Santa Rosa City Schools have partnered with Redwood Credit Union and the institution’s twice-a-year “Financial Literacy Academy.” High school students can receive one unit of academic credit for attending the free 16-hour course, held at the institution’s  headquarters in Santa Rosa during the spring and summer.

Enrollment in the financial literacy academy has increased steadily since its creation in 2009, with 192 graduates to date and 50 students enrolled for spring, said Lee Alderman, assistant vice president for training and financial literacy at Redwood Credit Union. The program has also since expanded into Marin, in a partnership with the Marin Office of Education and the Career Pathways program.

Inspired by a call for personal finance training at the height of the recession, the academy builds on a curriculum made available for free through the National Endowment for Financial Education. Students work with a credentialed instructor over the course of the program, studying concepts like debt and car insurance over four days in the summer or two-and-a-half days in the spring.

“The comments from the parents are always what get me. They say, ‘They came back on the first day and asked if we had a budget,'" Mr. Alderman said.

Travis Credit Union in Solano County also conducts a number of financial literacy efforts throughout the year. Those efforts reached 6,000 people -- adults and youth -- in 2011, with partnerships with schools and superintendents in Solano, Yolo and Napa counties, said spokeswoman Sherry Cordonnier.

The credit union also uses the High School Financial Planning Program from the National Endowment for Financial Education.

"We recognize that the financial preparedness of our community's youth is essential to their well-being and of great importance to the future of our communities," Ms. Cordonnier said.

When it comes to financial institutions, education officials said that schools are often cautious, concerned that partnerships could serve a commercial interest as a breeding ground for new accounts.

Mr. Alderman said that he felt education was an inherent part of the credit union’s mission, having spent 15 years devoted to those efforts for the institution. He said that he would support a state standard related to financial literacy.

“The thought is -- the state has a lot of things on its plate right now. Our goal is to provide a tremendous amount of success stories. We think that kind of pressure will get the state to pull the trigger" on a standard.

Elsewhere in Sonoma County, financial literacy partnerships are beginning well before the high school level. Junior Achievement of the Redwood Empire, the local branch of the broader organization, recently sent 16 volunteers to Petaluma’s Grant Elementary School for a four-hour financial education session.

That session was offered free to the school, at a savings of $500 for each of the 16 classrooms, said Lisa Cannon, district director for the organization.

More than 100 years old, Junior Achievement, a partner in the Jump$tart Coalition, has focused increasingly on financial literacy in recent years. With programs from kindergarten to high school, the organization has also adopted the curriculum from the National Endowment for Financial Education, one of several highly regarded curricula advocated by the state, and aims to help connect macroeconomic concepts to personal finance, Ms. Cannon said.

“There was a missing link for a long time,” said Ms. Cannon.

Efforts are underway in the state Legislature that could further encourage financial literacy education in California schools. Southern California Sen. Ted Lieu has authored Senate Bill 1080 that would put language encouraging financial literacy into the state’s education code. Another measure, Assembly Bill 1330, would give districts more local flexibility to include career technical education — and financial literacy — in their own requirements.

Yet in the enduring budget struggle, many districts are simply struggling to bring their students up to par with basic standards in areas such as algebra, said Roxane Fidler, a program consultant assigned to financial literacy and other programs at the California Department of Education.

“A local district could say ‘We don’t see that as an immediate need. We have other problems, and we have to focus on other things,'” she said. “It’s a hard road to walk.”

This article has been changed to reflect the updated name of Sen. Lieu's proposed bill.