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Fort Worth foundation aims to improve state's financial literacy

Texans are making poor decisions about personal finance, according to a recent survey, but Vickie Mauldin and her Fort Worth nonprofit organization, First Command Educational Foundation, aim to change that one student at a time.

FCEF is sending 271 sets of print materials and 14,000 CDs of its financial literacy curriculum for free to public schools in five major metro areas in the state, including the Fort Worth school district.

The goal is to send 200,000 versions of its curriculum this year for use in classrooms across the state, Mauldin said. That would reach about 185,000 high school juniors, or 63 percent of all the juniors in the state.

"We are dedicated and passionate about helping students learn personal finance," Mauldin said. "Personal finance is a basic life skill, and we're getting the word out that we're here to help."

The curriculum, called Money Matters, cost nearly $300,000 to develop, print and ship, Mauldin said. The project is sponsored by First Command Financial Services, which started FCEF in 1983 to provide scholarships for children of military families. FCEF is now independent of First Command and has grown in services and outreach, Mauldin said.

Other sponsors of the new curriculum are Credit.com and Atmos Energy, North Texas' natural gas utility.

Personal finance knowledge is still a major problem in Texas as well as the country.

A recent survey by the educational foundation of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an industry group, showed that Texans ranked poorly in several areas of financial health. Close to 1 in 5 Texans said they spent more money than they earned last year, and 60 percent said they did not have a rainy-day fund of at least three months' worth of expenses.

Mauldin hopes to see personal finance as its own high school course in Texas schools instead of incorporated into other courses.

"Unless you understand money and personal finance, you can't manage money, and you won't be a success," she said

Mauldin and her staff developed the curriculum to help educators fulfill a new state requirement to include personal finance information in an economics, math or career/technology course. The foundation's curriculum covers everything from simple tasks such as balancing a checkbook and understanding how a credit card works, to homeownership, insurance, loans and investments.

Fort Worth public schools were among the first to use the Money Matters program when it began in 2006, said Sarah Rogers, career and technology education coordinator for the district.

"It's an outstanding supplemental resource for our teachers," Rogers said. "Many financial companies have recently started providing similar supplements, but they use it to advertise. First Command is not out to sell their products."

Finding a textbook that keeps up with the rapidly changing world of personal finance has been a challenge for the district, Rogers said.

"Money Matters keeps up-to-date information, which is key because we are not able to provide new textbooks on the material every year," she said. "And the booklets are beautifully done."

FCEF also gives students taking the course a CD and access to online curriculum to encourage them to learn the material.

Robert Murray, a business teacher at the Center for New Lives, an alternative school in the district for pregnant or parenting students, has been using FCEF books and CDs for three years. The material provides about half his classroom curriculum.

"It's geared toward students," he said. "They've tried to make it so it's less boring. Most of the material is something the kids have never seen before."

Personal finance is something all students should be exposed to before graduating, Murray said.

"If they don't cover the material here, they're not going to get it out in the world," he said.

FCEF also provides free training for teachers several times a year, Mauldin said.

"The teacher training is important, because most of the educators were suddenly required to teach this, and many don't know things like the difference between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA."

Mauldin said she expects to launch by the end of summer an interactive website based on Texas' curriculum. She's also working on programs tailored to the curriculum of other states that require financial education.

"Oklahoma, for example, requires 15 modules in its personal finance curriculum," Mauldin said. "We want the website to be able to let students in other states call it up and find the subjects they need."

Along with the curriculum, Mauldin said she is a frequent speaker at local high schools. Last week, she spoke at a career day at South Hills High School in Fort Worth.

"I asked the students how many had credit cards, and about half of them raised their hands," she said. "But their parents do not talk to them about money. There is a tremendous gap in a basic understanding of money and financial literacy out there. It's just scary."

In another outreach effort, FCEF provides financial literacy workshops for nonprofit groups, which then educate their client base. One of those organizations is Unity One Credit Union, which with FCEF developed and implemented La Salud de mi Dinero (The Health of My Money), a program designed for the Hispanic community.

FCEF also works with Samaritan House, a local group that provides housing and care for HIV patients.

"A lot of our residents come from not having anything -- they've never had a checking account," said Rick Isaminger, family health and education coordinator for Samaritan House. He took the FCEF financial education training and now offers classes for his clients.

FCEF also provides more than $200,000 annually in scholarships for vocational and college training to residents of Samaritan House and other community groups. Mauldin also plans to offer financial summer camps for teenagers this summer.

Teresa McUsic's column appears Fridays.

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