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A Dose of Reality

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Communities In Schools of Georgia

Communities in Schools Teaches Students About Personal Finance with In-School Field Trip

By Amy Meadows

When students walk through the door to take part in Reality U, a financial literacy experience presented by Communities in Schools of Georgia in Marietta/Cobb County (CISMCC), they are no longer teenagers. Suddenly, they’re 26 years old. They have jobs, monthly incomes, credit scores, and possibly student debt. They may even have families that include children. And they have 75 minutes to figure out how to navigate and maintain the new life that literally has just been handed to them on a sheet of paper. From securing a residence and transportation, to purchasing food and personal hygiene products, they quickly learn what it really means — and how much it costs — to be an adult.

“This is an imaginative way to teach budgeting, and it’s as close to real life as you can get,” explains Natalie Rutledge, executive director of CISMCC. “It gives the students an idea of what they need to be thinking about, and it’s a way to prepare them before they have to make those real-life choices that can harm them for many years financially. We don’t want them to have that peril. We want to help mold our next generation into thoughtful and fiscally fit people.”

That’s why, for several years, Reality U has been offered for students in grades 8 through 12 at middle and high schools across Cobb County. The event originally began in 2002 as part of the Pando Initiative and was adopted by CISMCC six years ago. Since then, more than 31,000 students have participated in the in-school experience, which is designed to illustrate how important it is for young people to stay in school and concentrate on their academics as they look towards success in the future. In fact, according to Rutledge, the event aligns perfectly with the tenets of the organization itself, which strives to raise graduation rates by encouraging students to focus on their attendance, behavior, and coursework. And that’s exactly where Reality U begins.

Life as they know it
Before students participate in Reality U, they are asked to complete an online lifestyle survey that asks them to imagine their lives at 26 years old and what they expect, from their occupation and marital status to their use of credit cards. The survey also asks questions about their current grade point average, study skills, and attendance habits. All of that information is then entered into a trademarked software program and transformed into an individualized life scenario for each student. That scenario is described on the first piece of paper that participants receive as they begin the Reality U experience.

“In the survey, we ask them what they want to be when they grow up,” Rutledge says. “The software then propels them to 26 years old. Their credit score is reflective of their study habits and attendance. Do they have good behaviors like turning in their work promptly? Do they attend school regularly? Then chances are that they’ll be a good bill payer. Their GPA shows where they are in terms of their goals for their career. If they say they want to be a doctor but have a 1.8 GPA, then they may not be on track for that. Of course, the end result does not say that this is what you are going to be. But it is an exercise to reinforce the importance of attendance, behavior, and coursework.”

In addition to the life scenario, participants receive a second sheet of paper that serves as their “passport” through the event. It’s on this paper that students must work within their budget, visiting 12 booths to make purchases like homes, cars, auto insurance, food, personal items, and more. They also may have to deal with the costs associated with marriage and raising children, as well as providing or receiving child support, depending on their marital status. There’s even a “Game of Chance” booth at which the students can experience the “oops” or “oh my gosh, that was awesome” moments that happen in life, from breaking and having to replace a smartphone to unexpectedly winning $400.

The booths are manned by community volunteers who are there to help guide the students as they make budgeting decisions and try to complete the entire event without running out of money. If they do max out their budget, they can visit a financial services booth and sell items, secure a second job, or choose another option to garner more funds so they can finish the exercise. And if they end up with more money than they expect, they can look at what to do with those extra dollars, such as paying off credit cards or student loan debt quickly. “This is impactful because it expands the students’ knowledge of what it takes to be an adult,” Rutledge asserts. “It shows them how far or how limited their prescribed income can be and that all consequences have economic effects.”

Lending a hand
According to Rutledge, the 10 to 12 Reality U events that take place each school year could not happen without the volunteers who offer their time to help guide students through the experience. In fact, every session requires the participation of 25 to 30 volunteers from the community. “We have a very diverse community, and we have volunteers from many different areas,” she notes. From parents and church groups to senior citizen, civic and professional organizations, adults from all walks of life across Cobb County and Marietta have shared their expertise with the young participants of Reality U. No pre-training is required, as Rutledge’s team provides an onsite training session before each event. And, more importantly, each volunteer brings his or her own knowledge to share with the students. Rutledge continues, “That’s where our volunteers are so valuable — real-life experience. They are giving a wealth of information from their own lives to help mold these young people to have a better tomorrow and to learn from the mistakes of today. They are there to help affirm that these students are on the right track.”

Those opportunities to volunteer will continue to be available and even grow, as CISMCC has set a long-term goal of expanding to every middle and high school in the county, both public and private, as well as during sessions held in the summer or other times of the year in partnership with youth groups and community organizations. For schools, it is a win-win proposition because there is no transportation required and the cost is only $7 per student. In schools where the economically disadvantaged rates are 60 percent or higher, CISMCC works with several community partners and organizations to provide scholarships for students to be able to participate. What’s more, the experience fits perfectly into school curriculum requirements. “It really checks all of the boxes,” Rutledge says. “It meets financial literacy standards, and it’s teaching in a creative way that’s not just from a textbook.”

Making a difference

Garrett Middle School students taking part in Reality U.
Garrett Middle School students taking part in Reality U.

At the end of each session, students are asked to take an exit survey. And, as Rutledge reveals, Reality U is an eye-opening adventure for those who participate. “The students say things like, ‘I didn’t know how important it was to go to school’ or ‘I didn’t know I was so expensive. I really appreciate my parents,’” she states. One high school student wrote, “I think Reality U is very realistic because they took our GPA and showed us how it would most likely be in the future if we keep following the path that we are on. It showed us that if we want a better life than what we had in Reality U, then we need to start preparing for it now.”

Delivering that kind of motivation is what CISMCC infuses into all of its programming, which includes an array of wraparound services that are managed by site coordinators at several schools throughout the area. Those services range from academic assistance and behavior interventions to college and career prep and family engagement. “Our mission is to surround students with a community of support and give them someone they can talk to and rely on to help them navigate their way through school and develop skills to be successful in life,” Rutledge explains. “We want to eliminate the barriers to their success. We focus on grade promotion and graduation. We want students to walk away with their diploma, a goal and a plan. And it’s important for the community to support us because we are part of the solution.”

And Reality U is just one of the tools used by the organization to fulfill its goal. “Reality U can help students expand their ideas of what they might want to do in life,” Rutledge concludes. “We want to help students achieve greatness. We want to better prepare them to be adults. We want to help build and shape our leaders of tomorrow. This is an investment in our tomorrow.”

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“Bee” There for The Fun
On Friday, March 6, Communities in Schools of Georgia in Marietta/Cobb County (CISMCC) will host the fourth annual “The Bee,” a rousing adult spelling bee and fundraising event that will be held at The Earl and Rachel Smith Strand Theatre in downtown Marietta. Each year, local celebrities and civic leaders from across the area join together in sponsored teams of three to attempt to spell some of the most commonly misspelled and difficult words in the English language. The effort comes with lots of laughs, fun on-stage antics, and an all-around great sense of community, with proceeds going towards the programming provided at local schools by CISMCC.

The event begins at 7 p.m., with a special VIP reception being held at 6 p.m. General admission tickets are $20; tickets for students under 18 and military and first responders are $15. VIP tickets include a pre-event and intermission party and cost $60. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit cismcc.org.