Guest Post from Joe Russom: The Journey From Bronze to Silver to Gold in 3 Years

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Feb 05, 2020
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Advocacy

Joe Russom is an energetic personal finance teacher from Menasha High School in Menasha, WI. Mr. Russom is the 5th educator in the country to earn a $10,000 grant for his school through the Gold Standard Challenge for successfully converting his school to require a standalone personal finance course for all students to graduate.

Here's Joe in his own words:

What got you started advocating for the graduation requirement?

It was the students! Our previous personal finance program was combined into our economics course requirement. The reason for this combination was both cost- and licensure-based: starting a new course with potentially different teaching endorsements from our existing Econ/PF class was at first overwhelming. Moreover, we were not certain there would be a demand for a new solo Personal Finance course. However, after teaching the course as an elective for a few years, students began to ask for more depth and an individualized approach. This started us on the path of change to ultimately create a new graduation requirement for Personal Finance. We made the decision to alter our current program to a stand-alone course last spring, then began to formalize the change. 

Thankfully, my colleagues and I were all vested in this change from the beginning. In the spring, the administrators from my school got together with my department colleagues to discuss the state of the program. We all wanted to overhaul it, so our building administration then pursued the support for the Board and Superintendent. This made the process relatively seamless.   

What obstacles and/or resistance did you encounter?

Luckily, once the momentum began, my colleagues and I faced very few roadblocks en route to the graduation requirement. Our principal and curriculum director gave us a great deal of flexibility and latitude to create the model we desired. As such, we pulled ideas from different programs and used NGPF as the foundation of our curriculum.

The only major obstacle we had was licensure - essentially we needed a teacher who was interested enough in teaching the course to pursue the requisite endorsement to teach it. (SIDE NOTE: In Wisconsin, educators need to hold specific certifications to teach specific subjects, whereas in other states a social studies or CTE endorsement provides "blanket" certification for such a class.) Our state mandates that teachers either pass several courses in the material or pass an exam to meet the certification requirement set by the state. Currently, I am that teacher. I'll be pursuing the certification needed to teach the class in the early days of the new requirement, and as we add more sections, we will add more certified educators.

Other than licensure, we have networked with other personal finance teachers and begun the process of creating the curriculum. 

Which stakeholders were helpful partners in your quest to make the graduation requirement happen?

While I'm fortunate that our Board and administrators have helped advance my course during every step of the process, initially, my students were the voices clamoring for a more intensive personal finance class. When personal finance was crammed into economics, there was simply too much material to cover, and the students did not get the depth or personalized instruction they deserved. Therefore, it was their needs and demands that pushed us to we create a standalone personal finance class to begin with.

This will be a grad requirement for our incoming freshman in 2020, but our upperclassmen can still take it as an elective next year. I'm happy to report that, since the Board approved our request to make the personal finance course a graduation requirement, students - even those of whom for which the requirement will not yet be in place - have repeatedly expressed their desire to enroll in the course next year.  

What were the catalysts for change that allowed your efforts to be successful?

More of a who and less of a what... it was my principal! His earnest ability to hear the needs of our community that ultimately helped our school put this initiative over the top. For his support, I'm very grateful.

He was the catalyst for several reasons:

  1. He observed (and listened to) teachers' frustration with the overwhelming number of standards in the old arrangement of Econ & Personal Finance,
  2. He lamented the lack of depth our students were getting in the crowded old course, and
  3. He genuinely listened to our students, who had been requesting a more intensive personal finance class.

Even though it was only our principal's second year at the school, he believed in this change enough to go to bat for it. He rallied our school board, superintendent, and curriculum director to get on board, too. Once those crucial pieces were in place, everything else fell quickly in line to allow us to formalize this big change on behalf of our students.

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Check out our recent press release which highlights the Gold Standard Challenge Grantees to date. 

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