Makala Muhammad started her first business when she was in middle school. Her handbag making venture was inspired by her parents, who both ran small companies.
At the end of her sophomore year, she enrolled in Dunwoody High School’s “Academy of Finance,” a two-year program designed to act as a minor and help students focus on college and career goals.
“I figured the Academy of Finance would help me figure out what I really wanted to do and give me a perspective of what business would really be like,” Muhammad said.
Teacher Steve Fortenberry, a former investment analyst and financial planner, started the Dunwoody High School program in 1999, basing it on the National Academy Foundation, which was started in the mid ’80s in New York. Fortenberry said the course is a way to help students focus on business – something he thought was missing when he graduated from Dunwoody in 1984.
Back then, “money was not talked about much at all,” Fortenberry said.
Now, many high schools offer some form of personal financial education, ranging from classes in how to balance a checkbook to courses such as Fortenberry’s on how to run a business. The Council for Economic Education, which promotes economics courses, reported in 2014 that 19 states, including Georgia, require schools to offer a course in personal finance.
Local schools offer a variety of classes or programs to ground students in financial realities they’ll face after graduation.
Mount Vernon Presbyterian School offers an “Innovation Diploma” that “prepares them for the real world well before they attend and graduate from college,” said Allison Toller, the school’s chief brand strategist.
Exposure often comes as a high school elective or as a project for high school seniors. But middle school students aren’t exempt.
Mike Thorton teaches middle schoolers at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Sandy Springs how to budget—and the class is mandatory.
“All of our eighth grade students take this class in a quarterly rotation, so it’s about an eight-week class,” he said. “We used project-based learning to teach kids the nuts and bolts of living on your own, finding a job, managing a budget.”
The class gets “as down and dirty as grocery shopping and how to save money in the grocery store,” he said.
Thorton said he spent an entire class on purchasing a car on credit. “That’s a shocking thing for students,” he said. “They have no idea how expensive that can be.”
Mike McCandless, a science teacher at The Galloway School in Buckhead, said senior projects give students a chance to learn about the cars they drive. “Many seniors don’t even know how to open a hood latch and have no idea how to change a tire,” McCandless said.
McCandless said he and another teacher offer a four-hour session on basic auto maintenance. In the class, students bring in their own cars so the lesson applies directly.
“We show where the fluids are, maybe add brake or transmission fluid,” McCandless said. “We’ll actually show them how to top off fluids.”
Now that she’s a high school senior, Muhammad makes candles to sell, instead of handbags. She said she buys the glass jars, scented wax and wicks to make the candles. The Academy of Finance is teaching her about business plan writing.
“One of the fun parts here is the focus on the entrepreneurial piece and that there are so many businesses,” Fortenberry said.
Dunwoody student Kyra Perry said she will learn how to give an elevator pitch about the hammocks she created and plans to sell.
“I have the opportunity to start my own business, which is something I wouldn’t have done if I had taken any other academy or just regular classes,” said Perry.
During one of her lessons in Dunwoody’s personal finance class, senior Katie Morris was assigned a make-believe job as a high school teacher and had to figure out how to support herself and her family. “I had to roll the dice to see how many children I would have,” she said.
Luckily, she said, she married an NFL player and had a combined income of about $900,000 a year.
Not everyone got off the hook so easily. “I got lucky, but some students were single moms or had incomes around $20,000 a year,” she said. “It gave you an idea on how much you spend.”