Oregonian Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Oregonian

With an extra $100, Driana Watson says she’d buy shoes. Marquise Green would buy video games. His friend would buy Kool-Aid.

The sixth-graders at Northeast’s King School aren’t talking about Christmas money. They’ve just finished a class on finance and were given Bank of the West savings certificates.

The class, Banking on our Future, aims to teach minority students financial basics, such as how to resist impulse spending and save for a goal such as college or a home. It also fits into a Portland plan to help more minority families become homeowners.

The class is offered by Operation HOPE, a national nonprofit working to bring financial literacy to inner-city kids. Volunteers from local bank branches go to schools in underserved communities and teach. In a first for the Portland program, Bank of the West is handing out certificates worth a match of up to $50 for students who open savings accounts there.

A 2004 study by the city’s Homeownership Advisory Committee found that 34 percent of Portland minority families own homes, compared with 59 percent of white families. Mayor Tom Potter launched Operation H.O.M.E. (Home Ownership and Minority Equity) that year with the goal of increasing minority homeownership by 13,000 homes by 2015.

Clarence Bethune, a Banking on Our Future volunteer and loan officer at Umpqua Bank, knows the barriers to getting a home loan. He says education is the key to overcoming fear and credit issues, and that it’s important to instill in young people the idea that homeownership is possible.

"When less than half the people are buying homes, you don’t look at it as normal," he says of minorities. "Most folks don’t look at it as normal."

He says youths need to learn about credit cards, students loans and checking accounts so they can make smart financial choices — using a bank instead of a check-cashing store, for example. Kids also need to know that a poor credit score affects more than money.

"Let’s say you meet and fall in love; one person has a 480 score and the other has 720," Bethune says. "That can affect your relationship; you got to keep it real."

Portland program manager Marvin Cobb and Bank of the West volunteer Mike Rasmussen tried to do just that during a four-week class at King.

Cobb asked students during a recent session whether they knew what the New York Stock Exchange is. There were a couple of shy hands and some yawns. Then he asked: "Has anyone heard of Nike?" All hands shot up. "Did you know that instead of buying a new pair of Nike shoes, you can actually buy a share of the Nike company?"

Eyes widened. Students got the picture. And, fueled by candy incentives, they were all ears.

Cobb and Rasmussen explained about investments, stocks and capital gains, and did a series of math problems aimed at getting kids to understand the difference between selling for profit and selling at a loss. They used simple examples, such as: If your brother bought a video game at Blockbuster for $10, would he make much money if he sold it for $8?

Franklin High School in Southeast and Sabin and Jason Lee elementaries in Northeast also hosted the program. At King, Vice Principal Harriette Jackson says she’s glad to give kids a head start on saving. Plus, she says, the program meshes with the curriculum.

"It ties into the math real well, learning how to use critical thinking and calculating percentages," she says. "It makes math more personal for the kids and shows how things can benefit them." If students are motivated to put money away for college, "in four, five or six years, they might have a great little savings."

Banking on Our Future is open to teachers who invite volunteers during class time. Jackson hopes to see the class back in spring.

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