On a recent afternoon in Chicago, seniors in Bogan Computer Technical High School Room 216 are weighing the meaning of two charts. One depicts tuition; the other shows the percentage of students who will earn a degree at each of four fictional colleges within six years.
Their teacher, Christine Laadimi, poses a question: Which college is the best deal — and why?
The students — who’ve all applied to a minimum of five colleges to complete a required postsecondary plan — start peppering Laadimi with questions.
“Why are none of the graduation rates 100%?”
“Why are tuition rates so high?”
“Why is the price on this one so low?”
Laadimi patiently walks the students through the concept of value, how graduation rates and scholarships should factor into decision-making, and, ultimately, why cost shouldn’t be the sole data point students evaluate.
A senior who has been slumped down in his chair in the back of the classroom perks up. “The price may be low, but if you are never going to graduate, it’s not a good deal. Right, Mrs. Laadimi?”
That’s exactly the lesson Laadimi is trying to impart on her students, many of whom live in the working-class areas around this neighborhood school on the city’s Southwest Side. For the past few years, she has relied on a semester-long financial curriculum called FinEdge developed by the University of Chicago. The curriculum covers personal finance topics such as budgeting and credit scores, postsecondary costs, debt, interest, and investing.
“I’ve taken algebra, and some geometry, but this is the first class I’ve ever had where anyone talked to me about debt,” said Kenyatta Marsh, a senior.
Laadimi teaches global politics, civics, and 20th century world history at Bogan. Chalkbeat asked her why she believes financial education belongs in the classroom, and how she hopes her lessons inspire her students to take charge of their financial future.
How do you get to know your students?
First I tell them my life story about my family and then slowly I build that relationship. I tend to think of students first as teenagers and not just students. I ask them about their family; I remember and ask them follow-up questions.
My students are juniors and seniors. As a teacher, I remember being young and how it was to think and act impulsively. Because of this, I rarely yell at them. When there is a problem, I talk to them, and we try and fix it.
My classroom is also open during lunch periods three times a week, and they study and talk. They also stay after school and do work. I am also the debate and decathlon coach. So I see them outside of school. When they complete a certain amount of debates they get a hand-crocheted scarf made by me.
I treat all of my students with respect, which is something that not all people do, and I tell them the truth where I have gone wrong financially and how to fix those issues.
Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?
One of my favorite lessons is personal budgeting. I’ve been working with a program called FinEDge, which is a financial literacy curriculum developed by the University of Chicago. The lessons cover everything from credit cards to credit scores to paying for college.
When I teach personal budgeting, I start by asking students to list all of the stuff that they have in their “apartments” and how much it costs and what it is worth. It gets them thinking about insurance, if they get robbed or there is a fire. But also helps them to relate that they will not always have the best that their parents have provided them with.
I tell them about the time that I came back from a four-week trip exhausted, just to find out that I had been robbed and realized that I did not have renters insurance.
I give the students the actual amount of money that I make and have them research and budget where my money goes and then I actually tell them how much I spend in certain places.
A second favorite lesson is that I give them the dollar amount that I spend in a week for groceries and have them plan the meals and make a shopping list. If they can do it in under the money that I spend for groceries then they do not have an exam on budgeting. This teaches them about meal planning as well as grocery shopping. It does have its downfalls — sometimes the meals they suggest are gross.
What is it about your approach that resonates with students?
I think it’s important to keep it real. Students tend to think teachers are perfect and we don’t make many mistakes. And we do make mistakes — we make plenty of mistakes they don’t know about! I think being real about our financial mistakes, and how we fixed them, is important.
I’ve made decisions that have cost me late fees; I’ve dealt with bad credit scores. I don’t want my students to learn the hard way. But I think you also have to build trust in your relationship with your students so that you can have these conversations in class without being condescending or having them feel like they are doing something wrong.
What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?
Students come from areas of high violence; social media affects them; they have parents in jail. They are not always taught about savings, or investing, or debt. Many live in neighborhoods where there isn’t a grocery store or a bank. There’s a currency exchange.
We talk about how to open a free checking account, deposit your paycheck, and how that will save you the fees from cashing your check at the currency exchange and start you down the road to savings. We also talk about credit. Each year I do a unit where I teach students to look up their credit, and there are students who learn their Social Security number has been used by someone else.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I started to teach this class, I was sitting at report card pickup and a parent came to me and said that this was the first time that her child had come home and shared what they were learning in class. And the parent confessed that they did not know half of the stuff that I was teaching the students.
What part of your job is most difficult?
Buy-in from some students that they can break cycles. Especially when we get to the section about college — some students do not see the value in it. They feel that their parents are doing OK without college so they will be fine.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
Right now I am reading a James Patterson book, as well as “Motivating Students Who Don’t Care” and a Debbie McComber book. I cannot just read one book at a time: When you come into my room you will see the books on the shelf. After I am done with the books students can borrow and read them. I do not want to say borrow, because I do not ask for them back. I am hoping that they share these books with others in their life.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?
Consistency. Students are looking for that in their lives, and our classrooms may be the only place that they get it.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.