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Well, one small silver lining of the recession may be that it underscored just how little some Americans understand personal finance. That presents a golden opportunity to change the way young people learn about money. And some credit unions want to play an increasing role in teaching that curriculum.

From member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina, Scott Graf reports.

SCOTT GRAF: A recent 10-year survey conducted by Finesse Financial found that 86 percent of Americans don't know if they're on track to retire comfortably. And 43 percent said they spend more than they make each month. People like Glenda Head are working to change those kind of stats.

(Soundbite of conversation)

GRAF: It's 11:30 a.m. and Head, a business teacher, is walking to the lunchroom at R.B. Glenn High School near Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Once there, she helps two of her students open the school's branch of Allegacy Federal Credit Union. It's one of four the nonprofit has started at area high schools.

Ms. GLENDA HEAD (Teacher): They have to sign into a safe log where we sign in and out every day. So the beginning balance and the ending balance is confirmed.

GRAF: Soon the day's first customer, Jasmine(ph), approaches the counter.

JASMINE: Im withdrawing money from my account - $10 to be exact.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) checking.

JASMINE: Make that 15.

GRAF: One of the two tellers working today is 17-year-old Austin Dodd(ph). He says the class that goes along with this hands-on experience is already paying off for him.

Mr. AUSTIN DODD: I'm actually saving up money now. And if I wouldn't have got into this, I'd probably still be spending my money as soon as I get it.

GRAF: Dodd and his classmates are introduced to things like credit scores, the stock market and mortgages. Students are taught about arms versus fixed mortgages, why a 15-year is better than a 30, and the importance of making extra payments. Getting young people involved with credit unions is not a new idea. According to the Credit Union National Association, there were more than 700 branches in schools and youth clubs in 34 states last year. What has changed is the pace of growth. Since 2007, the number of these has increased by one-third.

Ms. LAURA LEVINE (Jumpstart Coalition): Oh, student-run credit unions are fabulous.

GRAF: Thats Laura Levine, who heads the Washington, D.C.-based Jumpstart Coalition. Its mission is to get kids thinking about money matters as early as kindergarten. And her job is getting easier. She says the recession has sparked a dialogue about the importance of teaching kids a very basic life skill, one she says was once routinely taught.

Ms. LEVINE: We got away from some of the practical matters. I think we now realize that maybe we swung the pendulum a little too far away from the practical stuff.

GRAF: While just about everyone who learns of the student-run credit unions seems to like them. Sandy Wheat says they won't solve financial illiteracy. She is with the North Carolina Council on Economic Education and says the reality is that theyre used by only a tiny fraction of high school students. And she says implementing such programs nationwide poses big challenges.

Ms. SANDY WHEAT (Executive Director, North Carolina Council on Economic Education): The idea of bringing in banking services to them is a little bit of a far-fetched notion when they're not even performing to grade-level expectations in their reading and math skills.

GRAF: Wheat says funding the programs may be unrealistic at a time when school budgets are so tight. But she says the more young people can learn about money in school, the better their chances of avoiding the financial pitfalls facing so many adults today.

For NPR News, Im Scott Graf in Charlotte.

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