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Hellgate High School to start finance academy

Financial planning, accounting and banking practices aren’t exactly glamorous occupations, but all indications are that employers will be scrambling to hire well-qualified young people for good-paying jobs in those areas in the next few years.

That’s one of the reasons Hellgate High School will launch a brand new financial academy next fall that will allow students to earn up to 11 dual credits in those three career pathways.

Beth Huguet, the chair of the business department at the school, will be the lead teacher at the Hellgate Finance Academy.

“A lot of the curriculum in the finance academy is curriculum I have been teaching for years,” she explained. “It’s restructuring it and bringing it more into the 21st century and making it more relevant to current topics and issues. But some of it is new curriculum. This summer we brought in business professionals from each of the pathways – banking practices, financial planning and accounting – and they went over the areas of study and the topics and told us what to take out, what was relevant, what to be teaching and what the students should know if they are going out into those areas of expertise.”

Lisa Hendrix, principal at Hellgate, said that she and Huguet started looking for the right opportunity several years ago.

“It has been a vision of Beth’s for five to 10 years, even prior to my tenure at Hellgate,” she explained.

Hendrix heard from a Donna Bakke at Missoula College that economists are predicting that much of the job growth in the local economy will be in banking and finance in the coming years.

“So the stars aligned and the pieces of the puzzle came together,” she said.

The women teamed up with Vicki McDonald of Missoula, a certified financial education instructor, and met with Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Alex Apostle in the summer of 2013, and they put together a steering committee. It consisted of teachers, University of Montana and Missoula College officials, students and 32 local business professionals who hammered out a curriculum that they all wanted to see.

“I was a financial adviser for 15 years, and one of the big things I came across was that I spent more time educating clients on how and what they should do on short term and long term financial planning,” McDonald explained. “I found that financial literacy is a lifelong skill, and the sooner you start educating them the better off they’ll be. I spent the last 13 years trying to implement financial literacy in K-12 education, and it’s finally working.”

Huguet said it hasn’t been as hard as one might expect to get kids interested in taking banking classes.

“There’s always been a portion of kids that have those interests,” Huguet said. “And they’re usually generated from conversations at home or parents or relatives that are involved in those professions already. It’s maybe more cut-and-dried content than say, industrial arts where they are creating products. This is more knowledge-based. But one of the things we’re looking for from the partners is bringing that more hands-on experience. We’ve never had banking curriculum in the state of Montana. And what that came out of is talking to partners, they’re finding fewer individuals coming out of high school with the skills that they can readily employ and the knowledge that they need to put into those entry-level jobs.”

Huguet said financial literacy is embedded throughout all the courses.

“The academy has a dual purpose,” she said. “It’s teaching financial literacy to all students that take any of the courses. And the other purpose is to give students who have career ambitions to possibly transfer to a two-year or four-year school in any of those selected areas.”

Hendrix said that her personal vision is for all freshmen to take financial literacy courses eventually.

“Together, the businesses, educators, postsecondary institutions, community parents and students have collaborated and worked together in developing a curriculum for the finance academy that included suggestions and input from our business partners that are in alignment with the National Business Education Standards,” McDonald said.

The Hellgate Finance Academy will be a four-year program, but students that will be sophomores, juniors and seniors next year can still sign up. The interest level from students has been high.

“We’ve had a few seniors that are upset that they aren’t going to be able to participate,” McDonald said. “Kids can get up to 11 dual credits if they successfully complete the four-year academy, and they can transfer those credits if they pursue a secondary education. Kids need to make the commitment to four years if they want the dual credit, but other kids can still take classes if they want, sort of like electives. Sophomores, juniors and seniors will still be able to participate.”

The team is working on making the academy available to students at all Missoula high schools.

“The new free bus rides that the city is implementing will help that,” McDonald said. “They will take the elective class at their school, like accounting and economics and then they will have to come to Hellgate a couple times a week to take classes.”

Part of the program will include out-of-school experiences and job shadowing. Hendrix said summer internships will be a possibility.

“A banker came in and told us when they hire on an entry level worker, that person takes a six-week training program,” McDonald explained. “They would like to see banking classes teach that training class, so if a student wants to go into banking they get a certificate of completion. Bankers are going to be all over them when they come looking for a job because they are already trained and the banks don’t have to pay to train them. We are really gearing this program toward what the business people want. We want to produce a workforce-ready graduate and they employ them. That’s what we’re working toward.”

McDonald said her ultimate goal is to have financial literacy become a graduation requirement at all Montana high schools.

“I’m so excited about it,” she said. “I have been trying to get it implemented for 13 years and now it’s really happening. I can’t be more excited. Financial literacy is a lifelong learning skill and a child knows from the moment they have to spend a quarter to buy a gumball at the store the power of financial literacy, and that’s when you should start educating them.”

“This is just a starting point,” Hendrix said. “We want to start here at Hellgate but we hope it develops into a district-wide program.”

Students will begin registering for the new academy in February. For more information, call Hellgate High School at 728-2402.

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