A million-dollar lesson plan

Teacher Amy Lagusker-Komen, left, meets with sponsors Sam Neylan, second from left, Kim Arnold and Brendie Heter, right, during a break as Lagusker-Komen attends the Foundations in Personal Finance meeting, held at the William S. Hart Union High School District office in Santa Clarita. Dan Watson/The Signal
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After high school graduation, students, often out on their own for the first time, traditionally can struggle with a number of real-world challenges a brick-and-mortar classroom education didn’t really discuss.

Now, William S. Hart Union High School District officials have created a curriculum through a partnership that’s aimed at making potentially daunting financial decisions less intimidating for those fresh out of high school.

Amy Lagusker-Komen, a mathematics teacher at Valencia High School, is one of the instructors trying to teach teens the necessary skills.

She taught an elective course in personal finance mathematics at Valencia High for the first time this past spring semester. The class, geared mainly toward seniors who needed to fill a math credit, teaches students how to independently manage their money after high school, touching on topics such as how to’s for buying a car, filing taxes and even planning for retirement.

“I’d been asking for a personal finance class for a while, and when I found out about this curriculum put together by Dave Ramsey, the financial guru, I thought that we had to bring this to Valencia,” Lagusker-Komen said. “The main goal of this class is to teach these kids how to live debt-free. Kids and parents loved it, the math was very simple, and I think it’s the best class that I’ve taught.”

Across the board, students, parents and staff have been very supportive of the class, and many of the parents have implemented the lessons. Lagusker-Komen said she has received many messages from parents requesting the class material so they could read it themselves and send it to loved ones.

‘Life-changing stories’

Brendie Heter, who first sponsored the pilot class during lunchtimes at Canyon High School in 2014 and now teaches the course at Legacy Christian Academy, has taught the class to adults for about a decade.

She said she was inspired to bring the material to kids after her adult students told her they wished they had known the information while they were in school. Heter said she always thought the class, which she said is now in 16 schools across the SCV, would be popular — but she didn’t anticipate it to take off so rapidly. 

“When have you ever heard of parents, teachers, students and admin all trying to get one class with a waitlist, and schools constantly trying to add more teachers?” Heter asked. “It’s very emotional, because we hear these life-changing stories from the students immediately.”

One component of the class teaches students to consider community college when pursuing their degrees as a way to save money while also getting a legitimate, accredited degree. 

“These schools might not have every degree, but if one is accredited and offers the major you want, then why not pursue that option?” Lagusker-Komen said. “You don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a bachelor’s degree. I got my master’s degree online, and I learned so much.”

Scholarship search

Lagusker-Komen also taught her students how to look for and apply for scholarships. Twenty-eight of her students received various scholarships, ranging from $500 to a $170,000 full scholarship to New York University. Between March and April, her students accepted more than $1,086,000 in scholarship money. 

“I made a cute thermometer poster and originally my goal was $100,000 — and we hit that in a few days, so I tore that down and made a new one with a goal of $1 million,” she said. “When we finally hit that million-dollar mark, I cried in class, and all the kids exploded with excitement. We had been $20,000 away for a few days, and one of my kids came in with a $70,000 scholarship that put us over that goal.”

Sponsors Sam Neylan, second from left, and Brendie Heter, third from left, lead a brainstorming session with instructors at the district office. Hart District officials estimate about half of all seniors in the 22,000-student junior high and high school district take the personal finance course each year. Dan Watson/The Signal

During a planning meeting at the Hart District office, Lagusker-Komen told the district’s other personal finance teachers that, initially, many of her students did not want to apply for scholarships. The teens didn’t think they’d receive any, since some of them didn’t have the best grade-point averages or weren’t star athletes. Many students also believed some harmful myths about scholarships: For example, many assumed they could only apply for scholarships during their senior year of high school, or that they could only accept one scholarship, leading them to decline many of the smaller awards. All told, Lagusker-Komen estimated that, including the declined and school-specific scholarships, her class actually earned closer to $3 million. 

“When the news broke about the million dollars, I had staff members pick up the phone and call me, not send an email, but call to congratulate me,” Lagusker-Komen said. “A lot of students taught their parents this information, and many parents now have emergency funds. In one family, the mom took a second job to try to buy her daughter a car; but after the project we did, she was able to quit that job and implemented the plan we discussed in class to buy her daughter a car.”

A tremendous asset

David LeBarron, director of curriculum and assessment with the Hart District, said he considers the course a tremendous asset to SCV students, and estimated about half the senior class takes the course.

“It’s not about academics, because these are all smart kids; but it’s about giving them the tools to now navigate the crazy financial world out there,” he said. “The growth of this class has been a very bottom-up, organic push that just speaks to the value of the information.”

This first semester has served as a test run for the Valencia class, and Lagusker-Komen’s success with the scholarship project will likely lead to it being implemented in other classrooms across the district. The instructors also discussed the potential for an earlier start date for the class. And though it’s an ambitious goal, she’d like to make the $1 million mark an annual achievement, as well. 

“The country is in so much debt because for so long we’ve been taught (debt is) OK, and a lot of this material is really easy and common sense — but people just don’t have this knowledge,” she said. “I actually learned a lot from this class. It’s all about living within your means, staying out of debt and learning how to buy things correctly.”

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