Jul 13, 2021

Mission 2030 Guest Post: Kathleen Brennan on guaranteed financial education's crucial role in an independent girls' school

The following post is one in a series of inspiring stories from NGPF's Gold Standard Challenge Grant Program which incentivizes high schools and districts to commit to ALL students taking personal finance courses before graduation. Learn more, and apply for your $2,500 to $30,000 Gold Standard Challenge Grant before the August 31, 2022 deadline here.

About Today's Guest Author

Kathleen Brennan is the chair of the math department and a passionate teacher at Mount Saint Mary Academy in Watchung, New Jersey. Their independent girl’s school is the 46th recipient of the NGPF Gold Standard Challenge grant. Here is Kathleen describing Mount Saint Mary’s journey to the Gold Standard!

Describe a rough timeline for how you and/or your colleagues were able to advocate for personal finance to become a graduation requirement in your school/district. How long did it take? What were the major progress milestones?

We began to offer the class in 2009, at the apex of the financial crisis. It seemed like it was an appropriate time to start the class as the crisis put a spotlight on the need for financial literacy. As chair of the math department, I designed a course integrating mathematical concepts into a financial literacy curriculum, proposing it as a semester course called Financial Math. Because I teach at an independent girl’s school of approximately 300 students with minimal layers of bureaucracy, it was relatively easy to get approval. It didn’t hurt that I had been a strong advocate for financial literacy and was known for the mantra, “a man is not a financial plan.” In addition, the administration at my school saw the course as a natural outgrowth of our mission to graduate strong, independent women.

Since our students have a full schedule that doesn’t allow for many electives, it was a tough slog in the beginning. Initially, I had a small handful of students who signed up for the course, but their numbers grew as the students who had taken the class became its strongest advocates. I knew that I needed to get buy-in from the parents as well as the students so I made arrangements to make my case at parent meetings. At these meetings, I focused on the need for their daughters to be informed about the cost of college, the dangers of debt, and the value of savings. I also emphasized how important it was for females to take control of their financial futures because they have longer life expectancies than men, make less than men on average, and often are responsible for their own finances due to divorce or the death of a spouse. This message especially resonated with our students’ mothers who acknowledged their ignorance about financial matters when they were their daughters’ ages.

Slowly but surely, enrollment grew from one small class in 2009 to four healthy classes by 2019. By the fall of 2019, our administration decided that it was time to make the course a graduation requirement beginning with the incoming class of 2020.

What challenges did you encounter in your efforts to make personal finance a graduation requirement, and what solutions did you find for these challenges?

Our students are high-achieving and want to take challenging courses. Initially, many students were concerned that the class would not help them build a resume that would be attractive to colleges. It helped that the course was under the auspices of the math department—it provided the opportunity to teach mathematical concepts such as linear growth, exponential growth, percentages, statistics, solving equations, and graphical analysis by using real-world problems. When teaching the course, I never had to worry that a student would ask, “When are we ever going to use this?”

As previously mentioned, having buy-in from the parents and the students was a definite plus. Going from an elective to a graduation requirement was a slow process, but I felt that it was necessary to build a strong case for the course over time, rather than mandating the requirement from the get-go.

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

My principal, Sister Lisa Gambacorto, and the Assistant Directress, Karen Calta, were instrumental in helping to make the course a requirement. They saw that graduating financially literate women was part of our mission. Without their support, a stand-alone graduation requirement in financial literacy never would have happened


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