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High School Students Tackle Financial Education Basics

Most high schools in the U.S. do not mandate that students take financial education classes, so PNC is offering a solution, bringing learning to campus and introducing basic money management concepts, one classroom at a time.

With a high school diploma in hand, Johnathan Gillenwaters is headed to Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis. The 18-year-old plans to follow in his father’s footsteps and study industrial technology.

Gillenwaters is one of nearly 60 high school seniors at Tindley Accelerated School in Indianapolis who chose to participate in a semester-long financial education elective program taught by PNC volunteers. For many attending the course, it was the first encounter they had with budgeting or understanding how to create savings goals.

“For as long as I can remember, I have been pretty good at spending money on the things that I need, instead of want,” says Gillenwaters.

Despite confidence in some of his money management habits as a teen, Gillenwaters still felt compelled to attend the weekly class to increase his financial self-reliance and learn money-management strategies.

Setting Up Students for Success

While the financial education class is not a requirement at Tindley, the students who elect it are enrolled for a full semester and receive a completion certificate from PNC. In some cases, they may receive school credit.

The programs are predominately supported through grants by the PNC Foundation, however, employees with a variety of banking expertise help implement the curriculum at local levels.

At the ring of the bell, PNC volunteer teachers scramble to squeeze in compelling coursework which includes classroom discussions and reading materials relevant to real-life financial scenarios students are facing.

group of students with PNC representatives
PNC is the first financial institution to offer supplemental learning in financial education for students at Tindley and recently recognized the latest group of PNC Financial Education graduates with a special ceremony.
From left to right (back row): Jeff Kucer, PNC Client and Community Relations Director; Pat Gamble-Moore, PNC Community Development Banking manager for Indiana; Tindley high school seniors Darrien Ray, Javier Gaddie and Jonathan Gillenwaters; Geordan Coleman, PNC Business Banking sales associate; Crystal Brooks, volunteer teacher & VP of PNC Bank’s Small Business Administration in central Indiana. Front row: Kelly Marshall, CEO Tindley Accelerated Schools; Cher Ballinger, volunteer teacher & PNC Branch Manager; Tindley students Harmony Speed, Julia Shirley, Amiyah Fleming and Timothy McKinstry.

One of those volunteers is Crystal Brooks, a vice president and team lead in PNC’s Small Business Administration claims department, who has been teaching financial education courses for almost two decades. Whether in a classroom or a women’s prison facility, Brooks hopes her efforts can help others build personal economic empowerment or inspire some to lift themselves out of poverty.

“I didn’t have this curriculum option when I was growing up. No one taught me how to manage my finances at home or in school, so when I graduated, I wasn’t prepared,” says Brooks, who made common money mistakes that included taking on too much debt and over-extending herself.

Tindley is a low-to-moderate income charter school where 90 percent of the children are on a free or reduced lunch program. Many Tindley students are the first in their families headed to college.

Brooks would like her students to see her and her fellow PNC volunteers as mentors they can reach out to for guidance outside the classroom and long after graduation day.

Cash-Only Kind of Guy

Data released from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority's Investor Education Foundation (FINRA) in 2015 reveals that high school students who are required to take personal finance courses have better average credit scores and lower debt delinquency rates as young adults.[1]

Before he enrolled in the course, Gillenwaters’ idea of money management was to live a cash-only life – paying for things as needed.

At 16, he began working as a cashier at a convenience store and later went to work for a grocery store chain as a bagger.  Each payday, Gillenwaters would cash his check, keep some money in his pocket and put the rest in a savings jar at home.

To be successful, most people may not need to know complicated financial terms or formulas, but they do need to know how to budget, borrow, manage a bank account and earn interest.

The course helped Gillenwaters and his peers learn basic banking concepts, in easy-to-understand terms.

Every Decision is a Financial Decision

Like millions of other graduating seniors, Gillenwaters is faced with the challenge of financing his post-secondary education, understanding that it may mean taking on debt at some point. For many students, balancing the cash flow of scholarships and monetary gifts with loans or credit cards can be a challenge.

He admits he is wary of credit, especially since his grandmother labels it “the devil, tempting people left and right.”

The class gave me an opportunity to learn more about credit, because I didn’t necessarily know the advantage that managing good credit has in the long-term balance of my financial health.

Johnathan Gillenwaters


In a recent survey from the National Endowment for Financial Education, 76 percent of adults in the United States felt financial stress and nearly half (49 percent) of adults reported that they live paycheck to paycheck.[2]

Brooks and her peers are encouraged that their students are engaging in lively discussions, asking smart questions on how best to adopt positive financial habits.

Gillenwaters is well on his way. He plans to pay for his Ivy Tech education in cash by working as an apprentice and taking on other odd jobs. His goal is to not take out any loans, which could positively impact his post-college financial health.

“I’m hopeful our efforts will help empower younger generations to make informed financial decisions so that they can succeed and ultimately benefit not only themselves, but also their communities,” said Brooks.

As Gillenwaters and his peers walk across the stage, Brooks and fellow teacher Cher Ballinger excitedly hand out a PNC course completion certificate to each graduate.

While an official handshake may signal a finale to the formal ceremony, the cozy hug between teacher and pupil signals that a meaningful learning opportunity has occurred, one classroom and one student at a time.


Do you know the basics of financial literacy? Take our quick quiz »


Jonathan Gillenwaters with Crystal Brooks and Cher Ballinger
Graduate Johnathan Gillenwaters poses with his two PNC financial education teachers, Crystal Brooks and Cher Ballinger.

In 2017, more than 275,000 participants attended financial education programs led by PNC instructors and volunteers, including on-campus initiatives like the one at Tindley. PNC currently provides financial literacy initiatives in more than 100 elementary, middle and high schools across its corporate footprint. 

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