Sue Comparato: how I advocated for 15 years to make Personal Finance a graduation requirement… and finally won.

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Nov 19, 2019
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Advocacy

The following is a guest post from Sue Comparato, Swampscott High School (Swampscott MA). Sue's school is the third to convert to the Gold Standard and earn a $10,000 grant from the NGPF Gold Standard Challenge!

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What sparked my desire to advocate for personal finance to become required?

My journey to implement a personal finance graduation requirement at Swampscott High School began about 15 years ago when I submitted a proposal to add a new elective class called "Personal Finance." The Principal at the time was skeptical of my proposal because she thought I would be giving students investing advice. She was also concerned that the course wouldn't be rigorous enough.

She hesitantly allowed me to run the course with the understanding that she would be keeping her eye on my classroom to guarantee I kept everything on the “up and up.”

As I created my course from scratch - trying to keep in mind the importance of delivering relevant information and satisfying the need for rigor - I created projects and learning experiences that students could use when they left high school. I sourced materials from local banks, used my own personal stories to create lessons, and developed projects - such as renting an apartment and buying a dream car - to demonstrate the importance of comparison shopping and living within a budget.  

At the time, there was nowhere near the resources and the community that exists today for course materials and professional development. Nevertheless, the course was a success because the skills we practiced in my classroom were real-life relevant. Students left the class grateful for the information and awareness they gained. Even in the beginning, several students told me Personal Finance was the most useful course they took during high school.

My students also frequently asked, “why isn’t everyone taking this?” Their enthusiasm started me on the long path of advocating for personal finance to be required in my school. 

How did I make progress toward my goal of a graduation requirement?

In the beginning, each year, I ran 2 semester elective sections that were usually full or close to full at 24 students each. During course planning each year, most of past 15 years, I have requested to several different administrators that our school make personal finance a graduation requirement. I was very persistent!

What roadblocks did I hit?

Nevertheless, every year I encountered a different reason (or reasons) why it couldn’t happen, such as:

  • not enough material,
  • not enough rigor,
  • no money to hire staff, and
  • no money to purchase materials.

I’m sure many of the teachers reading this post have encountered most if not all of these same obstacles when advocating for their Personal Finance courses.

My advice to those teachers? Don’t give up! Every year, asked for the course to become a graduation requirement again, only to be told, “no.” 

What was the final catalyst for change?

In education, one of the biggest challenges we face is turnover in administration. At Swampscott High School, for example, we have had 10 different Principals over this 15 year span, and 5 different Superintendents. However, this incredible pace of admin turnover is ironically what in the end finally allowed the graduation requirement for Personal Finance to happen.

In the spring of 2018, the administration told me and my department colleagues that one of our department’s required courses - Computer Applications - needed to be eliminated ASAP.

I saw this as my opportunity to push harder for Financial Literacy to take the place of the eliminated class. I immediately asked the administration about it (at this point I had a lot of practice), and the admin team told me I needed to prepare and present a complete curriculum map, or I couldn’t do it at all. I went to work right away and started mapping out the details of a brand new graduation requirement. To learn how the best Personal Finance teachers organized their classes, I attended as much professional development as I possibly could during this frenetic planning window. I picked up a lot of great resources from the growing community of passionate personal finance teachers, and built an immersive, comprehensive semester course to present.

And then... during the 2018-19 school year, we experienced yet more turnover at a few administrative positions, including our Principal. My window of opportunity opened a little bit wider.

I approached the incoming Principal, who had been a teacher at the high school for many years, and I told him that I really believed we needed to replace Computer Applications with Financial Literacy. During his time as an 11th grade English teacher, we had shared many students, and those who had taken my course would constantly talk about what they were learning in Personal Finance. He understood, by way of our students’ enthusiasm, how critical Personal Finance was. He agreed to make this change a priority. He told me to package together what I wanted, and offered to present my course plan and proposal to the School Committee. 

The day after his presentation to the SC, the new Principal told me that the proposal went well… the School Committee approved the new requirement outright! A couple weeks later, I attended a School Committee meeting (for another reason altogether), and the Committee Members even took a moment to recognize the change and express how excited they were about it.

What's next for Swampscott High School?

We are phasing out one requirement for another, and with the class of 2023 every single Swampscott High School student will take the standalone Personal Finance course before leaving our school!

I couldn’t be more excited for our students!

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