Seniors graduating next June from public high schools in New Jersey should have one set of skills not required of classmates who graduated before them.
Starting this school year, all public high school graduates must earn at least 2.5 credits, or a half-year, in financial literacy. The new requirement took effect when this year's seniors were freshmen, giving them and their schools four years to implement courses.
The classes are expected to teach students how the economy works and their own role in it. All students should learn about credit, insurance, banking, taxes and have the skills necessary to manage their own personal finances. But not all courses are created equal.
State Department of Education officials said they are leaving the decision of how to implement the course work up to local districts. Department spokesman Mike Yaple said executive county superintendents would make sure curriculum is aligned to state standards but would not tell a district how to do it.
"We're not that prescriptive," he said.
Deborah Figart, director of the Richard Stockton College Center for Economic and Financial Literacy, and vice chair of the New Jersey Coalition for Financial Education, said school districts are doing the best they can but are hampered by restricted budgets. She is concerned that not all lessons will be high quality.
"It's really hard to tell how well it's being implemented," she said. "The state is just assuming everyone is getting it."
New Jersey is one of 24 states that require some type of personal finance education, according to the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Finance Education in Washington D.C. Only four states, but not New Jersey, require a separate course lasting at least one semester.
Locally, many high schools had already offered a financial literacy course as a voluntary elective. Some schools continue to offer a separate course lasting either a half-year or a full year. Others are integrating the lessons into business, social studies, economics or even math classes.
Figart said some students taking her economics classes at Stockton are more informed, and she hopes to see even more next year with the requirement in effect. She said in some of her classes a student's total exposure to financial literacy has been that they played the Stock Market Game.
Oakcrest and Absegami High Schools have been part of a state pilot program on teaching financial literacy. This year Absegami was named a Blue Ribbon school for its program by the Working in Support of Education, or W!SE nonprofit group that offers programs and testing for financial literacy. Teachers Dawn Kosko and Sharon Heenan were also named Gold Star teachers for having at least 90 percent of their students pass the W!SE financial literacy test.
The schools offers a full-year course, and Absegami's program has grown from one teacher to three to meet demand. Kosko said most students take it their sophomore or junior year, and she believes a full year is needed to effectively cover all of the state standards. Both she and Heenan agree juniors seem to benefit the most.
"By then they have started to work, drive, and the lessons become more relevant to them," Heenan said.
"We'll go over their paychecks," Kosko said.
Absegami students learn about paying and borrowing for college, buying insurance, and training and salaries for careers. Recently they learned about setting SMART goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time bound. Students set their own SMART goals, which included saving for college, the prom and a vacation.
Senior Taylor Martin, 17, said it's helped her plan for college. Fayo Mamme, 17, said she likes that the course teaches how to make everyday decisions.
A survey of other area high schools found a variety of options. Ocean City, Middle Township and Lower Cape May Regional all offer half-year courses. Middle and Ocean City require it in freshmen year, while LCMR students can take it any year.
Ocean City High School teacher Greg Mensginer said they are able to cover all of the curriculum, though a full year would give them time to go into more detail. The course has been required for years, and works well with the freshmen scheduling, he said.
Lynn Langford, director of curriculum at Middle Township said their course is part of a freshmen seminar that teaches real-life skills.
"It's 'welcome to the real world,'" she said.
Millville High School offers Financial Literacy as part of the Career and Technical Education Department, and while students can take it any year, guidance supervisor Dave Vorndran said many take it their freshman year.
Students at Mainland Regional High School can take economics and/or business courses with a focus on accounting, such as Money Management, Principal Mark Marrone said. He said the school had a Personal Finance Through Technology course that was required for all freshmen, but switched to economics and business courses for upperclassmen because they were more relevant to their age, work experience and post-secondary plans.
Atlantic City High School is requiring a full-year course to give teachers ample time to cover all of the standards, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Sherry Yahn said. The course was an elective for several years, and this year is offered to juniors and seniors as a requirement. The curriculum has also been adapted for special education and bilingual students.
The Cape May and Atlantic county vocational schools are taking a more integrated approach. Superintendent Philip Guenther at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology said juniors and seniors are taking a separate class, but underclassmen will complete the requirement through an integrated curriculum in their career and technical classes.
Cape May Technical High School is also integrating the curriculum through all four years of their Career and Technical Education program, with students developing a portfolio as they progress. Part of the program is online, and students start with career exploration as freshmen, then go on to banking, insurance and creating a financial plan.
"We don't have enough extra periods in the day to make it a separate course," said Nancy Wheeler Driscoll, director of curriculum and instruction at Cape Tech. "And they also get experience taking an online course."
Teachers said the best feedback is when students tell them they use what they learned in the class.
Shannon Weis, 17, a senior at Absegami, took the course last year. She said the lesson that stayed with her the most was to put what she needs ahead of what she wants, one of the first lessons Kosko teaches.
"I've been doing that a lot since I got a job and am applying to college," Weiss said.
Contact Diane D'Amico: