Teens learn how to invest

Isamar Maldonado is worried about Sears Roebuck & Co. The retailer's stock has been tanking all week, so Isamar sells her 100 shares and buys some Dell instead. She has just one hour before the market closes at 4 p.m.

"Click on that," says Claudia Pagán, her coach and program coordinator for Girl Scouts of Nassau County, N.Y. She points to a link on a Web page detailing another potential investment. "Now read the story and see if it's a good one."

At Roosevelt Junior-Senior High School here on Long Island, Isamar and seven other teenage girls sit before computers researching public companies, and agonizing over which stocks to buy and sell with their imaginary $100,000.

The program - recently launched by Girl Scouts of the USA in partnership with the NASDAQ Educational Foundation - is one of a growing number of financial-literacy initiatives aimed at children. Nonprofit groups, corporations, and schools are jumping on the bandwagon. While instilling the values of saving and investing is important in itself, proponents say it also helps counteract media-driven messages that urge children to overconsume.

"This is an issue that we consider to be of societal importance," says Gary Knell, president and CEO of the Sesame Workshop, which provides content for Merrill Lynch's "Investing Pays Off" program. "It's important to teach kids how the economy works. They shouldn't become victimized by consumerism."

Merrill Lynch has developed a financial-literacy program that consists of employee volunteers, online resources, and a workbook full of lessons for children. "It's about being responsible and teaching the value of saving, and what things are worth," says spokeswoman Selina Morris.

The National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), which wrote the curriculum for the Investment Pays Off program, shows youngsters how to turn their street smarts into business smarts. At NFTE, the emphasis is on empowerment and financial control through business ownership.

The organization, which targets students from low-income neighborhoods, employs a "train-the-trainer model," says Jane Walsh, NFTE's director of corporate and foundation relations. NFTE offers five-day training programs hosted by major universities including Columbia and Georgetown. The schools provide space, guest lecturers, even college credit. Part of NFTE's mission is to expose children to the idea of ownership as an option, to help break the cycle of poverty and change impoverished neighborhoods.

"These kids have many misconceptions about the shop owner around the corner," says Ms. Walsh. "They think he's rich, but he's barely breaking even."

Opinions about financial literacy programs are mostly positive. Rose Anderson, a parent and public school teacher in New York, shows cautious enthusiasm. "Our kids are already materialistic," she says. "But that's really lacking in our schools - they don't teach you much economics."

"I firmly believe in a free-market economy," adds Rob Ferrier, a father of two young girls in Stroudsburg, Pa. "So the more you understand how it works, the better."

But not everyone likes the idea of institution-led financial literacy education.

"I feel funny about having these things done in a formal way," says Velouse Alexi, the mother of a 4-year-old in Brooklyn, N.Y. "I don't want ... there to be dollar signs on everything. For me, it's more important to learn other values, like making cookies together, instead of how much they cost."

In a way, the Girl Scouts have been learning about economics for years.

"Cookie sales are the foundation of it all," says Cathy Davis, Girl Scouts' manager of financial-literacy initiatives. But she is quick to point out that her organization is about much more than cookies, camping, and crafts.

The Stock Market Game, the 12-week program that attracted Isamar and her friends, is just one of several initiatives Ms. Davis manages. All are the result of partnerships with corporations that include Visa USA and JP Morgan Chase.

"It's about more than just pennies in the piggy bank," says Ms. Davis. "It's a much bigger picture than that as we move through life. We just want to make sure our girls are informed about the options."

As a result of the three-year partnership with the NASDAQ, Girl Scouts of the USA selects 20 councils each year, evenly distributing $500,000 in grant money among them. By the end of the three-year term, 7,000 girls in 60 councils will have learned about saving and investing. They will learn what a ticker symbol and market cap are, they will have heard terms like "dividend," "p/e ratio," and "earnings per share," and they will understand what it means to take a new kind of risk.

Back in the computer lab at Roosevelt High, the girls are almost out of time. The stock markets will close in just a few minutes. "Quick, quick!" says Pagán, encouraging them to complete their transactions.

In the end, Isamar and her partner, Aurora Gonzalez, rank a respectable 54th out of 100 participating Girl Scout teams.

While their interest in the Stock Market Game is obvious, it remains to be seen if any of these girls will be inspired to invest real dollars down the road.

"I don't think so," says Mildred Martinez. "Too risky, too confusing."

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