Khristopher Downing, 17, just graduated from high school, enrolled into a four-year college, bought a car, signed a lease for an apartment, opened a checking account, found a job and most importantly, stocked his refrigerator with groceries.

But in reality, Downing is not shouldering this list of responsibilities just yet. The Pleasantville High School sophomore, along with several of his fellow students, just competed in the H&R Block Dollars & Sense National Challenge - a test of personal finance literacy that uses virtual simulation software.

"You'll be making it so far, and then you get robbed," Downing said in hindsight, frustrated with the SIMS-like challenge. "It was all fun though."

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Feb. 1 marked the final day of the challenge's two qualifying rounds, which incorporated virtual retail, sports and restaurant management options.

Nationally, Downing ranked 25th out of 61 participants - based on the personal finance decisions he made for his simulated person - business teacher Carla Block-Ropiecki said.

"I can't tell you how many of them died because they forgot to buy groceries," she said, laughing at the real world challenge her student competitors faced.

Block-Ropiecki explained that as she saw the business marketing program find a solid seat within the Pleasantville school's curriculum, she felt inclined to give students hands-on experience in the field - even if it was virtual.

"I am a firm believer in teaching by doing," she said. "They are engaged, and they're learning without even realizing they're learning."

Four years ago, Block-Ropiecki joined the teaching staff, soon becoming aware of the business club Distributive Education Clubs of America, or DECA. Within a year, she learned that the simulation programs, offered by the developer Knowledge Matters and used by DECA members, were ready and available for use.

"We had the software, but nobody was using it," she said.

Currently, the simulation programs are being incorporated into the regular curriculum, used in both finance and marketing classes.

Block-Ropiecki wanted to expand on the classroom work and give the students the opportunity to compete, offering DECA after school, several times per week. The school covers the yearly $14 membership costs for its students, she said.

In its three years, the club size has doubled, and 25 of its 50 members competed in this year's virtual business challenge.

"They all like to compete. They like to see their name ranked and then they start paying attention," she said, referring to the real world techniques they came to discover. "Do you really think they cared about price margin before this?"

Seniors Eric Montesinos, 18, and Amandeep Kaur, 17, joined DECA last semester, both encouraged by their marketing teacher, Wayne Monroe.

"I had to manage the pricing and how to purchase the items," Montesinos said of the retail challenge, ranking first in the state by the second round. His strategy: learning from each of his moves.

"Every time I did something, I saw something new, and then I did something else and that gave me more ideas," he said.

Kaur, also having competed in the retail option, viewed the challenge as a game and as an extension of what was already taught in the classroom.

"It was better than doing class work," she said, adding that learning the concepts hands-on became more enticing.

Pleasantville High School competitors did not advance to the national level, but Block-Ropiecki felt that the DECA competitors learned from the experience. She plans on encouraging her students to compete next year, she said.

"I'm hoping to see interest spread with the kids and for more people to play more aggressively," she said. "They need to take what (they) learned and tweak it."

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