Learning the value of money

Right down the hall at Riverchase Middle School, an unassuming brick classroom holds an opportunity for students to learn firsthand the true value of money.

Jameela Bailey, 12, and Madison Shaw, 12, sit at a desk, peering at a computer screen. The two are student employees here at the Riverchase Middle School branch of First Educators Credit Union.

This isn’t a pretend organization, however. This is a real branch, where applications for savings and checking accounts are processed daily, and students can learn what it’s like to save instead of spend.

“As far as our students are concerned, our whole purpose is to establish the saving habit early,” said Quanetta McNeal, who teaches business marketing to sixth, seventh and eighth-graders.

The school branch of FECU, which serves students, parents and school staff, has been open since November 2007. Getting it open took some time and effort, McNeal said.

“I saw some statistics that disturbed me, about students getting in debt before they even left high school,” she said.

McNeal took the idea to different banks and credit unions, and found a willing partner in FECU. The Board of Directors there loved her plan to allow students to staff the branch, instead of just having an FECU employee.

Students who work at the branch must have parental consent, be members of Future Business Leaders of America and must go through professional development training.

While student workers are not paid, they are compensated in other ways. For example, when those students turn 14, they are first in line to be offered available teller positions at the Hoover FECU branch.

“We’ve already had two of our students be offered positions,” McNeal said.

Shaw, a seventh-grader, said she is both a worker and a customer for FECU. She has a checking account and a savings account there.

She chose to work at the branch to gain valuable work experience; however, she chose to open her accounts so she wouldn’t lose her money.

“It was just to give me a little more responsibility so I won’t spend a lot of money,” she said. “So I don’t go broke.”

Accounts at the Riverchase Middle branch are handled just like accounts at other branches. The only different rules are that account balances cannot dip below $5, and customers cannot withdraw more than $25 at a time.

McNeal said as far as she knows, the Riverchase Middle branch is the only one like it in the state and across the Southeast.

She said the FECU branch serves a valuable need. She recalled getting her first credit card offer at the age of 16, when the words “interest” and “debt” didn’t hold any real meaning for her. She said one of her middle-school students has already gotten his first credit card offer.

“(We’re just) getting them to start thinking about their money,” she said. “We want them to get hands-on experience on how to do business.”