A High School Economics Class Tackles the Financial Crisis

In today’s financial crisis, regulators and mutual fund managers are throwing out their playbooks. So are high school economics teachers. WNYC’s Lisa Chow goes up to the Bronx and finds out how one group of students is reacting to the troubles down on Wall Street.

REPORTER: Well, one thing’s clear. So far, nothing has discouraged students like Somora Burgess from wanting to pursue a career in finance.

BURGESS: The excitement of Wall Street is amazing.

REPORTER: Cemi Gonzalez also looks to downtown Manhattan for his future plans.

GONZALEZ: I think Wall Street gives you a lot of opportunities.

REPORTER: And Daquane Mays continues to believe the financial industry is where it’s at.

MAYS: I want to work on Wall Street because it has a whole lot of competition.

REPORTER: These juniors all go to the Bronx School of Law and Finance, a theme public high school. They’re sitting in their economics class and listening to their teacher Lena Borst talk about the government’s proposed rescue of American automakers.

BORST: They don’t do the bailout, what are the repercussions of that? They do do the bailout, is it a good investment?

REPORTER: Borst is 33, wears a nose stud, and used to work as a management consultant. She walks around what looks like a typical classroom, except there’s an 8-foot-long electronic stock ticker, mounted on the back wall. Borst has been teaching at this school for 5 years. She says her class radically changed the day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.

BORST: I looked at the headlines in the morning, threw away my lesson plan and started a whole new lesson plan at that time as to why in the world is this going on - What does subprime mortgages mean? Why are we in this place right now in our economy? - and actually had time to discuss real-life events.

REPORTER: Borst tells me to keep one thing in mind.

BORST: Eighty-three percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

REPORTER: I sit down with four kids to find out more about their background. Here’s Daquane Mays, Cemi Gonzalez, Alex Fuentes, and Somora Burgess.

MAYS: My mom works with the homeless, and my father’s currently unemployed.

GONZALEZ: My mother’s a nurse, and I live with my grandmother right now, and my grandmother’s a paralegal.

FUENTES: Me and my mother work at the same place and she’s one of my managers at Stop & Shop, and my stepfather is also one of the managers there, too.

BURGESS: My mom, she’s a therapist. She works with not so sane people. And my dad, I believe he works with sales.

REPORTER: So what did these young econ students think cause the financial crisis?

MAYS: People’s mistakes as in like, they took out a whole bunch of loans for no reason and then forgot to pay them back.

BURGESS: You can blame people but it really has to do with the credit card companies and the banks. A guy that worked for Citibank, he was saying that they were just giving out loans, like, carelessly.

FUENTES: You can’t blame in one particular group because it’s our fault for not being educated, and not knowing how to wisely spend our money. But yet it’s the banks’ fault for taking advantage of that.

Cemi pipes in with his experience at his bank.

GONZALEZ: I have a couple of bank accounts.

REPORTER: Cemi is 16 years old.

GONZALEZ: When I first went to make my bank accounts, they were telling me all these great things so I can make this money back but when they gave me all my papers and stuff, there were a lot of things that they didn’t tell me on there. And they tried to make it seem like those negative things that I read, they weren’t true, like, they would never happen. Me reading it, that’s what saved me. Cause if I wouldn’t have done it, I would have been in debt. And that’s what a lot of people did. They just signed. No I’m going to get something back. They signed, and that’s it, and they don’t really care.

I ask the kids what lessons they take from today's financial crisis.

BURGESS: Don’t spend money that you can’t pay back.

FUENTES: I’ve realized from all this that’s going on. People want the luxury life but they’re not willing to work hard for it.

GONZALEZ: I believe that if I go into the industry I won’t try to be selfish because selfishness is what caused this to happen. From them only thinking about themselves and not thinking about the world, the economy.

REPORTER: Despite their criticism, these teenagers remain optimistic about the future of New York's financial industry. Even though revered banks like Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns have disappeared. Many economists predict the US economy will start to turn around next year. So maybe these high schoolers' optimism has to do with fact that time is on their side. They don’t expect to graduate from college and face the job market until 2014. For WNYC, I'm Lisa Chow.