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Students embrace the financial literacy "revolution"

When Melissa Tighe arrived at Mayfield, she had some teaching experience under her belt, but much of her professional background was in finance. Over her 27 years on campus—as a math teacher, department chair and now Director of Innovation and Community Partnerships—she has been looking for ways to share her financial expertise with Mayfield students, beyond a brief lecture during Senior transition week.
As the Formation of Self program began to mature, Head of School Kate Morin spotted a curricular opportunity to teach financial literacy in a robust way to students of all ages. This fall, Mrs. Tighe was given a chance to realize her financial literacy class goals and she dove right in. And if there was any doubt of how serious she thinks this topic is for current high school students, the first slide of her PowerPoint telegraphs her commitment to the course: “The revolution begins right here, right now.”

It doesn’t take long before the students start to understand the urgency of the topics Mrs. Tighe wants to shine more light on. Widespread lack of financial awareness hides ongoing gender parity issues (women continue to make 82 cents to the dollar against their male equivalents) and racial equity is equally important to consider (Native American women 60 cents, Latinx women 55 cents). And currently only 17% of high schools offer a course that addresses these issues for even a single semester. “Just from seeing the statistics of how people are struggling due to lack of financial knowledge makes me wonder why many schools don't apply education on such an important subject,” says Vicky Wang ’24.

This Financial Literacy course is designed to span all four years, so every grade at Mayfield is getting some amount of this content right now. Although this new class will only meet once a quarter inside of Formation of Self (FoS), it covers a huge swath of financial topics and concerns. The first lecture focuses on the history of money, which addresses everything from the bartering system of past generations to the “currency” of cowrie shells in 1,200 BCE, and from the initial development of paper money in China to present day usage of cryptocurrency worldwide. 

Today’s class is a group of juniors in Strub room 301. After a video from Schoolhouse Rock about the history of bartering, Mrs. Tighe breaks the class up into groups, giving them all envelopes filled with cards representing items to barter among themselves—like clothing, food, water, fuel and medical care. The cards are given randomly and the game ends when one person barters successfully until they have all the 10 essential cards required to sustain life. The bartering game makes it clear why transactions like these eventually evolved into something like paper money (it’s pretty inefficient to transport all of your chickens everytime you want to barter for water). But inequities surface quickly in the conversation after the game too. Liz Goethals ’23 explains, “Some of us were dealt better cards than others.” 

Mrs. Tighe capitalizes on this loaded comment to tie the game into much bigger philosophical questions: “Is that any different than for everyone of us in this room? Did we have any control over the country we were born into? Or the gender? Or family, or time period? None of that,” she says. “This is just a card game. But this is people's lives and it is just as indiscriminate at the beginning.” This assessment seems to tap into the driving forces behind this Financial Literacy course. “How do we play the hand we have been dealt?” asks Mrs. Tighe, “And how do we help others—who through no choice of their own—were dealt a different hand...”

There is no doubt that these topics are important and these discussions are consequential, but this really wouldn’t be a Mayfield course if joy wasn’t injected in there somewhere. Mrs. Tighe and several other FoS teachers set up a Financial Literacy Spotify playlist for the students to enjoy as well. It has everything from, “I Need A Dollar“ by Aloe Blacc to “Money, Money, Money” by Abba. And although Mrs. Tighe is the architect of this course, her schedule doesn’t permit for her to teach it to every section of every grade, so these lectures are made to be delivered by any of her fellow FoS teachers, like Sarah Briuer Boland (who contributed some of the playlist songs and the School House Rock video!). Viola O'Beirne ’24 is enthusiastic that this course is now part of her Mayfield curriculum, explaining, “I am glad that financial literacy is part of FoS because this is just as important as other topics such as mental health.”

Over the course of the year, students at all levels will go from these discussions of macroeconomics (like understanding financial systems), to microeconomics (like creating a personal budget based on a future salary). Zora Hinrichs ’23 is especially interested in the more intimate part of this financial course. She writes, “The most intriguing part of the financial literacy program is to learn how to budget and possibly learn to increase my budgets by being smart with money.” Having recently learned that two-thirds of American families don't have six weeks of savings was also sobering to Zora, saying, “I was very surprised that so (few) families knew how to budget.”

This specific “History of Money” lecture is one that every freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior will have this year as it is the baseline for all further financial classroom discussions. But the subject material will start to veer in different directions later on, determined by grade. Upperclass students will get more accelerated elements of the course, designed to serve them in university and beyond. All in all, Mrs. Tighe is pleased that this class is sparking new awareness in the students, starting new conversations, saying this project is “an invitation to be part of the solution not part of the problem.” She also thinks equipping high school students with these tools before they launch into their adult lives also “gives them a real chance to solve the problems of their time and place.”

After only her very first financial lecture with Mrs. Tighe, Sofia Olona ’23 immediately clues into the “revolutionary” element that Mrs. Tighe emphasized early on, and why a course like this is essential at an all-female institution. “I found myself really disheartened when Mrs. Tighe read some new statistics about unequal pay among women, but that opened my eyes to the real importance of teaching young girls financial literacy.” And in spite of her initial disappointment, Sofia embodies the “growth mindset” Mrs. Tighe often speaks about and personally models. Yes, there is a massive problem with financial illiteracy in this country and this inequity impacts women disproportionately. But, Sofia suggests, “We'll have to be the ones to fix it.”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.