Personal finance class for students at Stuyvesant HS proves popular, NY lawmakers call for financial courses to be mandatory at all high schools

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Personal finance is in high demand at Stuyvesant High School and its only teacher, David Peng, is now teaching the class for an entire year—for the first time ever after the class was only offered as a semester-long course.

The first personal finance class at Stuyvesant started in the 2021-22 school year after a math teacher and a student noticed the need for financial literacy courses at a school that is heavily focused on advanced STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) courses. In a sea of ​​AP Calculus and advanced and abstract algebra classes, personal finance has struck a chord with many students who say they want a practical class that offers real-life information.

“There was a strong demand from students to make this a year-long course,” Peng said. “I knew this could be the start of something big.”

The year-long personal finance course, taught to seniors, at Stuyvesant High School is the only one of its kind within the New York City public school system. Currently, all public high school students learn some financial literacy as part of their required economics courses in their senior years. Elementary and middle school students touch on financial literacy concepts in their first, second, third, fifth, and eighth grades.

There are no state education requirements for financial literacy courses, but several New York legislators have introduced legislation to mandate financial literacy as a required course for graduation. More recently, New York Senator Leroy Comrie (D-14) reintroduced a bill this year — which he originally introduced in 2017 — requiring financial literacy courses for all high school seniors.

“A lot of kids are not aware of how to put a bank account together, balance a checkbook, or what an expense and revenue sheet is,” Comrie told am New York Metro. “These are critical things that need to be taught to all students so they can be aware of the challenges that they will all face as young adults.”

The initiative to bring financial literacy to New York middle and high schools has been discussed in the state legislature since 2009.

“I’m disappointed that the State Department of Education hasn’t been embraced,” Comrie said. “I hope that it will be embraced by more members [state legislators] this year.”

Peng, who teaches geometry and the math team at Stuyvesant High School, studied finance in college and was inspired to share the knowledge he learned about mortgages and student loans with students. He told am New York Metro that he had the idea in his mind, but just needed a push. That push came from a Stuyvesant student, Anisha Singhal, who penned an op-ed in January 2021 in the school newspaper called “Calculus Before Checkbooks?” Peng was convinced.

Singhal, who was finally able to enroll in the personal finance class after being waitlisted in the class’ first year, said his interest in financial literacy grew after he received his first paycheck. She didn’t think twice about the taxes and just assumed “this is why adults are always complaining.” But once she later found out from a family friend about tax refunds, she realized the importance of financial literacy.

“I’m definitely not the only one who didn’t know that you could file a tax return,” Singhal said. “I thought that was something everyone needed to know, but we just weren’t taught.”

Singhal, who plans to go into liberal arts education and potentially pursue journalism, said that 92% of the students at her school want to take a personal finance course, citing a school newspaper survey about financial literacy. Furthermore, the survey revealed that 89% of students don’t know how to take out a college loan.

Personal finance teacher David Peng explains sunk costs and loss aversion through a game with his students at Stuyvesant High School.David Peng
Personal finance students fill out a 1040 Federal Tax Return form at Stuyvensant High School.

After meeting with the school’s principal, Peng was able to get personal finance as a one-semester elective for senior students. While it wasn’t a required course, more than two dozen students signed up, although many more students who couldn’t get elected to “sit on the floor just to learn.” The class continues to be so popular that students who haven’t enrolled in the course find ways to still learn from it.

“They want to learn about something that will directly impact their future,” Singhal said. “If there was an empty seat in the class, students would come in and just listen.”

For Financial Literacy Month, which is in April, Peng planned for his students to encourage others to take the class and assigned them to plaster posters around the school campus along with tidbits of financial advice.

Melanie Khoklov, a senior student juggling aspirations to either study law or become a teacher, said taking personal finance was an easy decision as someone who isn’t a “STEM person.”

“I’ve had a very complicated high school experience,” Khoklov said. “I haven’t been taking traditional math classes for the last few years.”

Because Khoklov mostly lives on his own and is often self-sufficient, he said the information he’s learned in personal finance has been life-altering. She said she comes from a lower-income family who has experienced financial difficulties in the past and that her mother “doesn’t want me to fall into the same mistakes that she made.”

“My parents never really taught me how to handle money,” Khoklov said. “It’s been really helpful to have a class tell me how to deal with my money.”

David Peng, a personal finance teacher, at Stuyvesant High School.Sarah Belle Lin

Peng said he was hopeful that students would be offered more personal finance classes, although he said that would mean another course would get cut. Because there are no certifications required to teach personal finance, Peng said this might deter teachers from stepping up at their schools to teach such a course.

“The bottleneck is now we need more teachers who can teach this course,” Peng said. “It’s hard to find teachers to teach personal finance.”

But Peng has a passion for the subject and is enrolled in a financial literacy course at the Teachers College at Columbia University to network with like-minded educators.

“I think there’s room for a lot of growth,” Peng said. “I think it’s my job to expand this in the school.”

Peng heavily based on Next Gen Personal Finance, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit that offers a free personal finance, math, and economics curriculum for middle and high schoolers. Peng said one of the founders had even reached out to him and encouraged him to continue expanding the course at Stuyvesant High School.

Tim Ranzetta, one of the cofounders, highlighted a few sections that students will have a chance to learn from through Next Gen, such as the underpinnings of credit card agreements, investing in and the history of the stock market, monetary tradeoffs, or a game that helps them navigate through college.

“We never teach kids how to read fine print,” Ranzetta said, adding that it’s something that needs to change. “We’re giving them an opportunity to really dive in deep.”

Around 800 teachers from New York City have expressed interest in Next Gen Personal Finance since it was created in 2017. Roughly 200 teachers are using the curriculum in New York City schools, possibly as an elective or as part of another class, Ranzetta told amNew York Metro .

There are currently plans to expand the Next Gen Personal Finance curriculum into more New York City public schools. The goal is to require all high school students in the US to take one semester-long personal finance course before they graduate by 2030.

William Vongphanith, a student in the personal finance course, said he signed up because he was looking for a more well-rounded senior year.

“I felt like it was completely new and different to what’s normally taught,” Vongphanith said. “Because it’s a school that’s very academically focused, you wouldn’t expect it to teach something like personal finance.”

This past semester, Peng taught his personal finance students about bank accounts, debit and credit cards, investing, budgeting, saving for retirement, as well as applying for and managing student loans in college. Several students told am New York Metro that they thoroughly enjoyed learning about taxes.

“He turned a boring topic into a very interesting one,” said Vongphanith, of learning about taxes.

One recent project Peng assigned to his students was a group project uncovering all the strategies that advertisers and marketers use to promote their products and brands.

Vongphanith’s group looked into how fountain pens were branded and marketed to consumers.

“A lot of people are not aware of these subtle, subconscious things,” Vongphanith said. “I think this project really taught us about being attentive to advertising and making sure they don’t overwhelm rational thinking.”

Khoklov has most enjoyed learning about making major financial decisions, including buying and renting an apartment and buying a car. She said learning the realities about college loans was the most helpful, from assessing how much college truly costs to the kind of loans that students can apply for. Now, she’s hoping to go deeper into investing topics and “about different ways to build up your investor portfolio.”

“I’m so grateful that I took a non-conventional path,” Khoklov said. “I honestly think that personal finance should be a required course in every school.”

Singhal acknowledged how privileged Stuyvesant High School students are and that smaller schools and schools with predominantly Black and brown students might not have similar access to financial literacy in their schools.

“Students from the lower-income backgrounds are the ones who almost need this more, right?,” Singhal said. “I think it’s important to provide that education to all students, and especially those in low-income communities.”

Homework for personal finance students at Stuyvesant High School.William Vongphanith & Anisha Singhal.
Personal finance students at Stuyvesant High School put posters around the campus for Financial Literacy Month in April.David Peng

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