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Commerce helps students in underrepresented communities learn about banking

During the summer of 2021, Commerce Bank created a unique program in partnership with the Jennings School District to help some of the district’s middle-school students establish a healthy relationship with finance and banking early in life. Through this initiative, Commerce team members visited summer classes for Jennings’ college-prep students at Johnson Jennings Junior High to teach the basics of banking.

The program is coordinated by Phillip Benoist, a Commerce senior vice president of retail and senior group manager in St. Louis. “We saw an opportunity to engage with students at a young age and help them learn how to be responsible with money,” he says. “The idea is to help them understand banking and how it can help them. Many students get their first job in high school and often get paid via direct debit card, and they think that’s what banking is.”

Benoist says that Jennings was a good fit for this program because it’s an underserved school district, and many of the families in the district don’t use traditional banking services. He worked with the superintendent, Dr. Charmyn Andrews, to establish the program. “If we can get some of these students to feel better about banks and understand how to work with them, it will help them in the long run,” he adds.

As part of the program, a group of seven “ambassadors” from Commerce provided lessons during a summer program that Jennings hosts for its college-prep students at the seventh-grade level. One of those Commerce team members was Crystal Avery-Morris, the bank’s community development officer.

“Financial literacy is not traditionally part of the curriculum that teachers in Jennings are required to provide, particularly for middle-school students,” Avery-Morris says. “The school’s leadership wanted their students to have the opportunity to learn financial concepts and build a positive opinion of the institution of banking at an early age. I was excited to be a part of that.”

Avery-Morris notes that the Commerce team didn’t want the sessions to feel like regular schoolwork. “We took a very fluid approach,” she says. “We presented concepts to the students and allowed them to tell us what their experiences were. Many of them, for example, told us they hoped to buy a car in the future. But they didn’t understand what it takes to really own a car. So that was one area we explored with them.”

Benoist says many of the students have an entrepreneurial mindset and want to start a business someday. “Once we understood that, we taught the students about the concept of cash flow and what it’s like to have employees,” he says. “We explained the role banks can play in helping businesses grow. And we talked through budgets and helping them understand that if they make a certain amount of money, where it all goes each month.”

The Commerce team shared plenty of information on personal finance as well, says Avery-Morris. “We talked about 529 accounts and how they help families save for college,” she adds. “And we went over 401k accounts and how those work, as well as the various types of checking and savings accounts.”

Beyond the lessons themselves, the Commerce team made an effort to build relationships with the students. By doing so, they helped the students stay engaged with the content. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” says Avery-Morris. “Once we established that we really wanted to listen to them and not just lecture, everything clicked and the students really opened up.”

Benoist adds that some of the bonds established over the summer were quite strong. “One of our ambassadors is very good with people, and he made a connection with a kid who lost his dad recently,” he says. “They both left the classroom in tears because of the connection they made. The students often hug our ambassadors, and lots of really long-lasting bonds were built.”

The team’s ability to connect with the students was noticed by the school district’s leadership. “I was impressed with the way they connected with our scholars right away,” says Dr. Kristin McFarland, an assistant principal at Johnson Jennings Junior High, where the summer session was held. “They were able to build connections so quickly.”

McFarland says the experience was an important one for the students. “It was great for them to talk with adults who are experts in this field,” she says. “Being able to watch them interact with the ambassadors and build relationships with them is exciting. It builds trust and gives them confidence about banking.”

Many students at Jennings, McFarland notes, only see adults living paycheck-to-paycheck; she is hopeful that programs like the one led by Commerce will help them realize there are better options. “We’re trying to widen their view and make sure they understand that actions they take now can impact their financial health down the road,” she says.

“We asked the students what they would do with $1,000 if someone gave it to them, and most of them said they would keep it rather than put it in the bank,” says Benoist. “They said they didn’t want to lose their money to fees. They were surprised when we explained to them that almost all banks have no-fee accounts. Hopefully it changes their perception and gives them the ability to make smart money decisions.”

The summer program was considered such a success that Commerce was invited back to provide additional lessons. “I can’t say enough positive things about the Commerce team,” says McFarland. “It’s been so great for our scholars; everything has been amazing.”

“What we’ve done so far has really impacted the perception of the students,” says Avery-Morris. “As we sustain those relationships, there will be even more impact as they build their own relationships with banks in the future. They’ll be able to walk into a bank with confidence, knowing there are people there who want to help them.”


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