Student-run credit union teaches financial literacy

MECU student branch is only one in city

  • Student teller Shawneka Freeman, right, helps regular customer Brandon Bass, left, to withdraw $20 from his MECU bank account. National Academy Foundation High School students operate a student branch of MECU (Municipal Employees Credit Union, Inc.) inside their school for two hours a day during school days. Students and school staff can withdraw up to $20 and $40, respectively, a day from their accounts.
Student teller Shawneka Freeman, right, helps regular customer… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
January 16, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

When graduates of the National Academy Foundation interview for jobs in the financial world, some will have an advantage unlike students from any other school in Baltimore: They'll be able to cash in on years of experience operating a fully functioning branch of a city credit union.

For more than two years, the South Baltimore high school has housed a branch of the Municipal Employee Credit Union, carrying out the day-to-day duties of opening accounts, taking deposits and dispensing cash for members of the school community.

A well-kept secret (though that wasn't intentional), the high school's business and finance program has provided juniors and seniors training that will give them an edge when they're ready to capitalize on their skills in college, the work force and the world, school officials said.

"They're financially literate in a way that adults should be," said NAF's principal, Karen Webber-Ndor, as she watched students file in and out of the bank Friday. "If they're getting the employment experience in a secure and supportive environment, they're going to be ready when they leave here to face the world."

MECU, a credit union created exclusively for those who live, regularly work, worship or attend school in Baltimore City, expressed interest in partnering with the school around 2007, when MECU's president joined the school's advisory board and had a vision of a student-operated branch, Webber-Ndor said. The plan came to fruition a year later, in what she called "a small miracle."

"Now we take it for granted, like every school has a bank," she said. "But really, it's quite unusual."

The NAF branch is the only one of its kind in Baltimore. A similar program exists in Baltimore County, where the First Federal Credit Union of Maryland operates out of four high schools.

The student-run MECU branch started in October 2008 with six student-tellers handling a couple dozen accounts. It now has 14 student-tellers, who manage more than 140 checking and savings accounts belonging to teachers, administrators and students at NAF.

Webber-Ndor said the program has been built on trust between the school and credit union. The school has a reputation for few disciplinary problems and has been able to maintain promises to provide staff oversight, with a teacher supervising the students. Several tight security measures have kept it operating without incident, and not one dollar has been unaccounted for, school and credit union officials said.

The program is in line with the school's general mission of preparing students for college and the work force, Webber-Ndor said. It also teaches the importance of being on time, having a professional demeanor and dressing appropriately.

A handful of students go on to work in MECU branches either part time or full time. The students are not paid for the hours they work — because it is considered a "living classroom" — but they gain experience, becoming well-versed in products, services and how the $5 required to open a savings account can earn a student considerable interest by senior year.

"We're grooming young people to be able to bring them to a branch location, and are also here to produce our future leaders of the finance world," said Glenda Smith, a director at MECU who oversees three of the credit union locations, including the one at NAF.

For two hours a day, tucked away in the corner of NAF's cafeteria, a small room mirroring a standard bank branch bustles with activity as student-tellers take names, write checks, process paperwork and hand over cash — a $20 maximum for students and $40 for adults — to their customers.

Shawneka Freeman, a senior who wants to be a certified public accountant, took questions about how to open accounts Friday, but said that students often seek advice about managing their money outside the 11 a.m.-1 p.m. business hours.

"We're a real credit union, but they're our friends, too," said Freeman, a student-teller for more than a year. "When we're in here, they're customers, but when we're out there, we give friendly advice. It's good for building relationships."

Among the best advice, Freeman said, is promoting the value of saving money. She was advising fellow senior Jamia Jones about how to do that on Friday, persuading her classmate to open a checking account to have her paychecks directly deposited.

Jones, who already has a savings account at the NAF branch, said it's hard to hand over her entire paycheck. Besides, Jones said, she just hadn't gotten used to "the whole bank thing."

"It's weird not having the money in my pocket, and it's hard to save," Jones said. "So if I get direct deposit, it's really going to help out.

"Besides, it's just cool," she said. "I mean … who has a bank in their school?"

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