High school students in Minnesota and beyond sorely lack the knowledge needed to effectively manage their financial lives. While lack of literacy likely will cause life-long financial struggles for many, educators and community bankers in Shakopee are working together to educate students and build the foundation for future financial success.

Last fall, Shakopee High School entered into a partnership with HomeTown Bank to incorporate financial literacy into the school’s wider initiatives to enrich high school education. As the Academy Champion for the school’s newly formed Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, HomeTown Bank is playing a key role in increasing students’ experience with banking products, knowledge of personal finance and belief in the impact of community banks on the areas they serve.

Rethinking its educational model

Under the backdrop of trying to improve not only financial literacy but also experiential learning, educators at SHS, which serves more than 2,600 students in grades 9 through 12, reconsidered how the school should deliver electives. The timing coincided with the opening of the school’s expanded 644,600-square-foot campus in September, allowing the school to move ninth-graders into the high school building.

Now, when students in grades 10 through 12 register for courses, they are given the choice of participating in one of six academies: Arts and Communication, Business and Entrepreneurship, Engineering and Manufacturing, Health Science, Human Services or Science and Technology. These academies represent innovation in how learning is being delivered.

An additional freshmen-only academy is designed to provide ninth-graders with an introduction to each academy so they can select the one that best suits their interests. The school also has made financial literacy mandatory beginning with the freshman class.

Of course, innovation costs money, so the district recruited area businesses to sponsor each academy and looked to area banks to support the Academy of Business and Entrepreneurship.

“We decided to take a look at it,” said Tim Grabow, president and CEO of $310 million HomeTown Bank, which is chartered in Redwood Falls. “We thought it was a unique opportunity to get involved with a large school district and provide some financial literacy to the kids.”

The bank also was interested in providing hundreds of district teachers with any help they might need when it came to financial matters or banking, Grabow said. The bank submitted its proposal and the school accepted. The plan allowed HomeTown Bank space to facilitate learning with an on-campus branch, which the bank built at its own expense.

According to the school’s website, each academy sponsor commits to the equivalent of $300,000 in time, talent and treasure.

“It was a significant financial investment,” Grabow admitted.

The new, on-campus branch of HomeTown Bank is adjacent to the school lunchroom. It focuses more on education and financial literacy than on the number of transactions it can process.

“We didn’t go into this looking to gain business,” Grabow said. The bank’s purpose in partnering with the school was to get students “better prepared for what comes next in their life.”

But increased visibility was attractive, Grabow admitted. HomeTown Bank entered the Shakopee market in June 2015, initially operating in leased space downtown. A little more than a year ago, the bank opened a new branch office on the south end of Shakopee near a new Hy-Vee grocery store. That branch has exceeded expectations, Grabow said.

The bank’s investment in an in-school branch, while unique, made sense from a teaching perspective. Research conducted by the Center for Financial Security, conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shows students with access to savings accounts and financial education increased their financial capabilities and were more likely to become financially secure adults. Even as little as five hours of experiential, classroom-based education can significantly improve students’ financial knowledge on a long-term basis while also improving their attitude toward saving and financial institutions.

“It’s a learning experience for both of us,” Grabow said of the partnership. It’s an investment in intangibles that will be difficult to measure, but that didn’t deter the bank.

Forging new territory

To handle the teaching component of the in-school branch, HomeTown Bank hired Heather Meyers as personal banker. Meyers had, for 25 years, been a teacher of English as a second language.

Lynn Lambrecht, operations manager at HomeTown’s Shakopee branch, said she sought out Meyers because the bank wanted to approach its sponsorship from the education angle rather than from a business perspective.

Meyers, who joined the bank in July 2018, received teller and personal banker training. In addition to serving as the onsite community banker, she has been hard at work networking with teachers to create ways to work financial literacy into various classes. Because all of the academies opened last September for the first time, the curriculum is still being fine tuned.

Sarah Jordan, principal for the Academy of Business and Entrepreneurship, called the first year working with academy sponsors something akin to “awkward dating.” The school and the bank are “starting with conversations, becoming familiar with one another… the biggest piece right now is feeling how the partnership can best be utilized,” Jordan said. In the end, the partnership “will serve our students tenfold” as kids have “realistic experiences” and in-depth exposure through basic, intermediate and advanced business courses.

During the traditional break in October (designed to allow teachers to pursue continuing education) the teachers from the Academy of Business and Entrepreneurship took a “field trip” to HomeTown Bank to get to know all of the bankers and to brainstorm how the academy and the bank could work together.

“Some of the ideas that came out of that day are things we are continuing to work on,” Meyers said.

One of the unique synergies that has emerged is with the Spanish class, where students have begun to learn banking terms. Two of HomeTown’s banking experts attended one section of the class to help define some of those terms. One was an experienced banker; the other a bilingual (English and Spanish) banker.

Another section of that class had students conducting research on banking. After the holidays, a field trip to the bank to ask specific questions about their research was planned.

In late January, the academy was set to sponsor Spanish night at the bank, Meyers said. Members of the Spanish-speaking community were to be invited to hear students present on basic banking topics in the community members’ native language.

Meyers also was working with the freshmen teachers to create a curriculum for a financial literacy unit to be taught in spring. Most importantly, SHS is making financial literacy mandatory beginning with this year’s incoming freshmen.

Experiential education

HomeTown’s bankers hope to deepen students’ knowledge of banking through internships. The bank recently completed interviews for two student intern positions, one to work with loan officers, the other to work with operations and marketing. The bank also intends to hire student tellers to work at the SHS branch.

Because the partnership is new, results are anecdotal. “I used to hear, ‘Whoa, dude. Why is there a bank at my school?’” Meyers said. “It’s a lot of explaining that the bank is here, it is a real bank, you can use it for a checking or savings account. It is a legitimate place to do transactions.”

“We are here for the financial literacy of all students,” Meyers added. “We don’t have a lot of students with accounts yet, but those who do generally don’t know how to do the basic things like fill out a deposit slip, so I’m able to explain ‘This is a teaching bank; I’m going to teach you how to do this.’”

“Between the school and us, this is uncharted waters. We’re kind of working together to see what works long-term,” Grabow said. The bank’s initial commitment was three years, but Grabow said he hopes it lasts much longer than that. “The school’s desire to make it work certainly works well with our desire to make it work.”

While other banks have tried in-school branches, Meyers has yet to learn of a program that works in-depth financial literacy and banking products into its curriculum the way HomeTown Bank has.

“I haven’t found our exact peer anywhere else yet,” she said.

Liz Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Fairmont.

South regional editor

Deena is the regional editor for Shakopee, Jordan, Prior Lake and Savage and is passionate about uncovering the truth. Deena also enjoys gardening, playing tennis and up-cycling furniture.

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