West Principal: Financial literacy a ‘no-brainer’ and should be a district-wide graduation requirement

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West High School seniors Josh James, left, and Jacob Plamondon, recently completed the NCDE financial literacy pilot program which helped the get a better handle on their spending and saving habits. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – Knowledge has become power for West High School senior Jacob Plamondon. He says the chance to examine his spending habits as part of a financial literacy course designed by the National Collaborative for Digital Equity (NCDE) was an eye-opener.

“For me, the biggest mistake I was making was buying food,” says Plamondon, 18, one of 19 West students who participated in the course which concluded April 15. Now that his eyes are open, one of the changes he’s made is controlling his spending on restaurant food. He now puts at least $50 of every paycheck he gets from working at Rite Aid into a savings account, and tries to shop more often for food he can prepare at home.

So far he’s used some of his savings toward buying a car, with some help from his parents, and appreciates what he learned in the seven-week intensive course. School principal Rick Dichard encouraged him to take the course, and Plamondon says he’s glad he did.

Ditto all of that, says Josh James, also a senior.

“My savings account is more like a comfort, to know I have money put away in case of an emergency,” James says. He also started to focus more on saving than spending, and says he gained deeper knowledge about how loans work.  Now he’s less stressed about money.

“I learned to separate necessities and needs, like gas and groceries, and save money for things I want, like a good pair of shoes,” he says.

He feels like now he can also contribute more to household expenses, including groceries, to avoid draining his paycheck on take-out food, just like Plamondon.

“The course definitely changed the way I do things,” says James. “I’d tell seniors to take the course because it will help you in the long run.”

West Principal Rick Dichard. File Photo/Carol Robidoux

The West financial literacy pilot program was taught by two bank managers from Bangor Savings Bank as a series of seven 90-minute classes. Students who successfully completed the course received $25 to deposit into a newly-opened bank account, half an elective credit and an industry-recognized digital badge, a sort of micro-credential that has value as a form of skills currency for future pursuits.

Both Plamondon and James rated the program a 10 out of 10, and, say they think all students should take the course – a main goal of piloting the program at West, Dichard says.

“School really needs to be about true preparation for life,” Dichard says. “We require algebra 1 but not financial literacy, and it’s something everyone in this world absolutely positively needs, so when these opportunities arise we need to take advantage of them. I’d like to see it be a graduation requirement. It’s where we want to get to.”

Dichard, a former math teacher, championed the program at West as head cheerleader and chief student recruiter.

“This is how I got the kids for this group and how random it was. We picked a time slot and looked at kids who already had a study hall so they were already ‘free,’ then we crossed our fingers we wouldn’t get a snow day to alter our blue-white schedule. Then I went to those study halls and recruited, one kid at a time,” Dichard says.

He the incentives – giving all students who completed the course $25 to open a bank account and the chance to earn a half-credit toward graduation – make the program a classic “no brainer,” a phrase he uses a lot around students.

“I like to tell the kids there are some things in life that are ‘no brainers’ and this is one of those things,” he says. 

Of the 19 kids who signed up, 17 completed the course, and Dichard says they are working with the other two students to get them through to the finish line.

“The fact that not everybody made it tells you we’re not just giving it out like candy canes at Christmas. You have to complete it and test competent to get the credential, and now they’re all getting a leg up with these badges as part of their online digital portfolio,” Dichard says. “It’s  the wave of the future, with cryptocurrency and all that  – cutting-edge stuff, and this is exactly what we want to be for our students.”

In addition to the financial literacy program, 10 students participated in a Digital Opportunity Leadership Course, taught by Jenelle Leonard, a former program officer for the U.S. Department of Education who serves as NCDE’s Director of Digital Leadership Development. Those students were loaned a refurbished fully-loaded laptop which, upon completion of the course, were able to keep for personal use as well as provide technical support to their peers, teachers and family members.

Bangor Savings Bank Assistant Vice President and Elm Street branch manager Jaime Nadeau, right, congratulating West student Scarli Geraldino-Hernandez for completion of the financial literacy course. Courtesy Photo

NCDE has worked with the district on other initiatives, including helping to close the “digital divide” that became apparent in the early days of COVID-19.

At that time Manchester Proud reached out to the school district to identify the greatest needs among students, which was getting computers into the hands of lower and middle-income learners. Through a partnership with NCDE and Southern NH University’s School of Education, “Operation Lemonade” was launched. The initiative brought together a consortium of a dozen banks, credit unions and other funders as a Financial Partners Work Group, which resulted in

  • Distributing 350 laptops to kids in need around the city (funded by  Bank of America, Bangor Savings Bank, Bar Harbor Bank, Bellwether Community Credit Union, Citizen’s Bank, People’s United Bank, and Service Credit Union.)
  • Funding from the Bean Foundation to help families secure broadband services through Comcast Internet Essentials. 
  • Coordination of workshops between the school district, Manchester Proud, NCDE, SNHU, and NAACP, to promote seamless access to and timely delivery of the needed devices and services, using school social workers to identify students/families with needs
  • Working with VISTA and Victory Women of Vision, on creating an online program to train linguistically diverse New American teens and young adults to provide tech support for students and families using the laptops.

Mary Ford, Director of Inclusive Pathways for NCDE, says there are other initiatives and resources for students and the community at large, like BankOn New Hampshire, which helps the “unbanked” establish accounts with free or low-cost checking options, no fees or minimum balance required (click here for the current list).

“We found that many people were spending 20 percent of their income on check-cashing fees because they didn’t have a relationship with a bank,” Ford says. This is especially common among New American families who arrive with little knowledge of the banking system, or with distrust in institutions. “There are some cultural differences at play, which is why this program was created.”

Not only does BankOn provide free financial literacy education, credit repair counseling, and mentoring, but the more far-reaching goal is to strengthen pathways to living-wage careers and remove digital-divide barriers to financial and economic inclusion.

Focusing on financial literacy education among the first cohort of students at West has been a proving ground for the positive outcomes that provide life-long lessons and help students as they move on to college and careers.

Dichard says like all pilot programs, the first pass provides insight and leads to improvements.

“The nice part about the pilot is you learn. Most things went well and a few things, we learned,” he says. One of those lessons learned was that bringing in bank professionals to teach high school students presents a challenge – for both.

“It’s not a college class. We’re teaching high school students and that’s no easy task in this day and age, so there has to be some help, including more scaffolding for the high school students. You can’t just show a powerpoint presentation and expect students will get what they need, so going forward we need to help our outside partners with resources, and be ready for the next cohort,” Dichard says.

Due to the scope of the material, more time might be built into the next iteration of the course, he says.

“We’ll work hard at redesigning it and making it even better,” Dichard says. “It went great, and now it can be even more spectacular.”

He says he is open to running another session this school year, if possible, but making the course a permanent part of the curriculum for all district high school students is a policy issue that falls to the Board of School Committee.

“We’re going to do as many of these sessions as we can,” Dichard says. “Every single kid would do this if it were up to me. Once we have another session under our belts then it will be time to make the case to the school board.”


About this Author


Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!