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Area Schools Implementing Free Digital Financial Course Banzai

With the hope of thwarting bad financial habits before they begin, a Utah financial planning company’s computer teaching tool, Banzai, is being used in classrooms at north country schools.

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The program makes an interactive game of balancing a checkbook, paying bills and learning financial independence. High school and middle-school students can learn basic financial concepts through real-life scenarios.

Students “have to buy everything you would normally buy on a day-to-day basis. They start out with some money in the bank account; then rent is due, they get a paycheck, they have to pay for gas and food and so forth,” said Deanna L. VanWie, a teacher at the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services’ Howard G. Sackett Technical Center in Glenfield. “As the game goes on, they never know what is going to happen next. You can’t plan to get sick next week, just like in real life.”

The Banzai financial literacy program has been introduced over the last few years to nearly 10,000 school districts in all 50 states. Recently, company co-founder Morgan M. Vandagriff said Northern New York is one of the highest participating regions in the country.

Students from Watertown City School District, General Brown Central, Adirondack Central, Indian River Central, Lyme Central, Carthage Central, Belleville Henderson Central, Sandy Creek Central and other north country school districts have used the program over the past year. The program originally was intended for high school juniors and seniors, but Mr. Vandagriff said teachers also are using it for middle-school students.

The computer program is free for teachers in private or public schools as well as for home-schooled students. Mr. Vandagriff said his organization partners with local credit unions around the country who sponsor the program so that it is free for students and school districts.

Northern Credit Union teamed up with Banzai to sponsor the program and offer other incentives to school districts.

“I have to credit Northern New York as being the best, and I think the enthusiasm at Northern Credit Union is a big part of that,” Mr. Vandagriff said.

Alexa B. Bennett, marketing manager at Northern Credit Union, said the bank sponsors the program for anyone who lives or works in its coverage region.

“Teachers in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties are eligible, but we don’t stop anyone who lives outside of our banking area from participating. The most important thing for us is to promote financial literacy,” Ms. Bennett said. “All they have to do is go to and start trying it out.”

Mr. Vandagriff said the goal of the program is to introduce financial literacy in a way that engages participants.

“My background is in private wealth management and I worked with a lot of wealthy families who weren’t always very good at managing their money, and I thought about people who didn’t have the luxury of a lot of money and we wanted to create a program to teach financial management,” Mr. Vandagriff said. “We decided to launch this program for kids so they can learn about financial responsibility before they ruin their financial future.”

At the beginning of the program, the participants must take a financial literacy pretest that tests their knowledge of credit and debit cards and balancing a checkbook. Then the students participate in the simulation, choosing where to spend their money and designating funds in their account for different purposes using jars labeled car, rent, utilities, other and reserves.

At Copenhagen Central School, business science teacher Patricia Jolliff said her students complain that it doesn’t seem too fun to spend their paychecks on bills.

“It really makes them think about where money goes and starts the process of thinking about what to do with a paycheck,” Mrs. Jolliff said.

She said that given the fact that there aren’t as many business teachers as there were when she began teaching 30 years ago, it’s important to embrace free programs like Banzai.

“When the kids are using the computer, they can work at their own pace, and this is something the school doesn’t have to find a way to pay for,” she said. “There are so few programs out there to teach financial responsibility, and we need students to know that.”

Ms. VanWie said she uses the Banzai program in her New Visions class for students hoping to pursue a career in a medical field. She said she would “absolutely recommend” the program for getting college-bound students ready to leave home.

Not only is the program free, but Ms. Bennett said Northern Credit Union will set up a new savings account with $25 in it for each student who completes the program at a participating school. The bank also will give a $25 Staples gift certificate to their teacher and an additional $25 to the school.

“At Watertown, they used their $25 to give to the business club. The school can designate how they want that money spent, and at the same time we’re setting it up so the students can put into practice what they learned with their new savings account,” Ms. Bennett said.

A representative from Northern Credit Union will come to the classroom to talk about financial literacy. Ms. Bennett said classes also are invited to schedule a field trip to one of the credit union’s locations.

Teachers interested in using the Banzai program can visit or call 888-8-BANZAI.

Banzai interactive courses are fun and FREE. Go ahead.