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Education Leads to Investments

Numeracy and Financial Planning Lessons Motivated DC Workplace Ed Students to Form an Investment Club

by Cheryl Jackson
"How much asphalt is needed to fill a pot hole that measures 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 inches?" This is the type of math problem encountered by asphalt workers who participate in the District Department of Transportation's (DDOT) Paving the Way to Success Workplace Education Program in Washington, DC. The program is a partnership between Literacy Volunteers of America-National Capital Area and Academy of Hope, who have a joint work place education grant funded by the State Education Agency and DDOT. These workers are responsible for paving streets, alleys, and sidewalks and for installing speed bumps in the District of Columbia. Since May, 2003, the Workplace Education Program has helped employees improve their math, reading, writing, and job skills and also acquire or improve skills in other areas of their lives. The employees now participating in the program have been working for DDOT for two to five years.

Participating Organizations

The workplace literacy project described in this article is a collaboration between Academy of Hope and Literacy Volunteers of America of the National Capital Area. The employer, District Department of Transportation (DDOT), pays for the classes, and the State Education Agency provides the mobile technology unit that the class uses when creating a web site, studying for the GED and com mercial driver’s license, and improving reading and writing skills.

Academy of Hope is a community-based organization that provides classes in ABE and prepa ration for the GED and the External Diploma; the agency also provides workplace education programming.

In addition to figuring out how much asphalt is needed to fill potholes, the workers are now determining personal debt to income ratio, calculating how much they need to save each month for retirement, comparing different types of life insurance to decide how much they need, calculating interest, creating household budgets, and analyzing stock performance. The enlarged range of the employees' math focus is a result of a financial literacy course taught by Sun Trust Bank and offered through the State Education Agency's Literacy Advocate Institute. The Literacy Advocate Institute offers professional development courses for adult education and family literacy practitioners, adult learners, personnel in DC agencies, and the for-profit and nonprofit community in the District of Columbia. After completing the basic financial literacy course, the workers decided to form an investment club, which has required the continuing refinement of their financial math skills.

Five employees, three men and two women, participate in the Workplace Education Program. (Three more men have joined since this article was written.) Their academic levels range from fifth through 12th grades for reading and fourth through eighth for math. Two have completed their tests of General Educational Development (GED) while the other three have not completed high school. The men's backgrounds include incarceration and drug rehabilitation. One of the women had been working as a telephone technician after participating in a job training program, but took a downward spiral after the suicide of her 14-year-old son. She quit her job and bounced from program to program. Eventually she ended up in Project Empowerment, which is how she got her job with the District Department of Transportation. All of the employees previously participated in various job-training/welfare- to-work programs in the District of Columbia, such as Project Empowerment or the YWCA's nontraditional jobs for women program, which led them to their present jobs. They all started at DDOT as temporary workers; all are now permanent employees since participating in the Workplace Education Program. One has been promoted to the lead person of his crew.

Responding to Students' Interests
How did these employees move from doing the math required for paving asphalt to analyzing stock? DDOT has given the program latitude to help learners meet both workplace and personal goals. On the first day of class, the instructor asked them what they wanted to learn. In addition to routine workplace skills such as filling out forms on the job, writing incident reports and memos, understanding benefits, and other work-related learning pertaining to their present jobs, they were interested in gaining new skills for job advancement, buying homes, planning for retirement, increasing personal cash flow, and making informed decisions about insurance and investments.

The Workplace Education Program class meets two days each week for two hours per day. Initially, the classes began by devoting one day to work-related learning and one day to financial literacy. Workers began their financial literacy learning by reading Robert Kiyosayki's Rich Dad Poor Dad in class and discussing his ideas. Rich Dad Poor Dad presented new concepts and different ways of thinking about financial literacy. His book served as a catalyst for the group's financial literacy journey.

Idrysis Abdullah, Vice-President of Community Affairs of Sun Trust Bank, donated his time to teach the financial literacy classes. He adjusted the curriculum to the students' interests, and they learned about money flows and asset creation, budgeting and goal setting, insurance and investments, and preparing for home ownership. The financial literacy class started out with a values clarification exercise to help employees determine how they would spend their money given limited resources.

In the money flows and asset creation workshop, they discussed the way money works and is recycled within a community, building assets, saving money, and how interest makes money grow. They learned to calculate simple and compound interest and to use the Rule of 72, which computes how long it takes money left in an account to double.

In the area of budgeting and goal setting, Abdullah taught workers how to create a budget, establish goals to make purchases, and save a percentage of all income. The class discussed paycheck deductions and learned how to calculate these Abdullah taught a class on different types of insurance, deductibles, coverage vs. cost, and investments. The workers learned how to calculate the approximate amount of life insurance needed based on family size and the number of dependents. Insurance was a particularly interesting class for the employees, because many had purchased insurance through their employment, but were not sure what type they had purchased. Learning about investments sparked interest in starting an investment club. The students were fascinated with learning about stocks, bonds, mutual funds, money market funds, and certificates of deposits. The last classes addressed preparation for home ownership, which absorbed more class time that any other topic. Nearly all of the students were interested in home ownership. Some of the topics covered during these classes included the benefits of owning a home compared to renting, financing the purchase of a home, the mortgage application process, closing and settlement, home maintenance and repair, preventing foreclosure, and protecting one's home from predatory lending. Students said they felt better prepared to start the home buying process after completing these classes.

Upon completion of the financial literacy classes, one of the employees commented that she liked the hands-on, working knowledge approach to the class. She found the class to be informative and educational and felt inspired to pay more attention to her finances. She also said that she had faced some ugly truths about money and debt. Another employee commented that she had lost track of her personal financial goals, but coming to the financial literacy class had put her back on track. Most participants agreed that they had gained a radically different perspective about personal finances after participating in the class.

Student Initiative
As a result of the financial literacy class, one employee suggested that the class form an investment club. The students embraced the idea, and other individuals were invited to join. The employees agreed that they could invest $35 a month without hardship, with $25 going toward investment and $10 for administrative costs. Each member of the class ordered the book Starting and Running a Profitable Investment Club from the National Association of Investment Clubs, and this book became the instructional material, along with other information collected from the Internet. A study program is a requirement for a successful investment club program, and so members had to commit to studying and working to have a successful club. While surprised at the amount of work involved, the employees had their first informational meeting in May, 2004, and have been meeting monthly since then. They are becoming more knowledgeable about selecting brokers. They are using and learning new math skills when evaluating companies, using stock selection guides, stock comparison guides, and record keeping. They are also acquiring skills in researching information and making presentations.

Most of the investment group members are enrolled in the workplace education program, but other people have also joined. I am a member. We have attended other clubs' meetings and a DC Regional Chapter Director made a presentation to us. We will also be attending classes offered by the DC Regional Chapter of the National Association of Investors Corporation to increase our knowledge. Although all of the tasks can be done manually, we plan on purchasing software to complete the stock selection and comparison guides as well as for the record keeping.

In addition to the investment club, the DDOT employees are completing the development of a web site for the Paving the Way to Success Workplace Education Program and will be presenting on the process at the ProLiteracy Conference. The site will include a page dedicated to financial literacy. (Although still a work in progress, the web site is

Challenges and Motivation
Since the employees are involved in what is defined as a workplace education program, on a couple of occasions work responsibilities have kept them from attending classes. Regular attendance has probably been one of the greatest challenges in keeping up with projects such as the financial literacy classes. In fact, some classes had to be rescheduled to accommodate employee schedules. As with any adult literacy class, another challenge has been the participants' varying levels of reading and math skills. However, because the employees are accustomed to working together and assisting each other on the job, they have carried this spirit of cooperation and camaraderie into the classroom.

The difference between teaching math in a workplace education and in a regular adult education class is that in the former employees are highly motivated to study math in the context of their paychecks, getting raises, planning for retirement, balancing personal checkbooks, and other math associated with specific job tasks. In my experience, in more traditional adult education classes, students study math primarily in conjunction with preparation for the GED test, which is never as exciting as contemplating one's next paycheck!

Kiyosaki, R., & Lechter, S. L. (1998). Rich Dad Poor Dad. New York: Warner Books, Inc.

O'Hara, T., & Janke, K. (1998). Starting and Running a Profitable Investment Club. New York: Random House.

About the Author
Cheryl Jackson has 20 years of experience teaching and developing curricula for adult education programs. She is working as a workplace education instructor with the Workplace Literacy Project, a joint venture between the Academy of Hope and Literacy Volunteer of America of the National Capital Area. She also serves as a resource instructor on the State Education Agency's mobile technology unit for adult education practitioners.