- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Tatevik Markarayan is like any other bank assistant manager. She greets customers as they approach the teller window, oversees the opening of new accounts and helps other employees close up shop at the end of the business day.

There’s just one big difference: She’s 10.

Tatevik is one of the 14 fifth-graders at Sunrise Valley Elementary School in Reston who operate Sunrise Savings, a school bank that gives students an opportunity to open savings accounts and earn interest on their deposits. Sponsored by Cardinal Bank in Tysons Corner, the school bank is designed to promote financial literacy at an early age.

“I thought it would be fun and it could help me pursue a career when I get older,” Tatevik said as she stood outside the teller window to assist the bank’s young account holders. “I used to not think it was a fun job, but now that I’ve applied, I think it’s a really fun job.”

Open Tuesdays from 8:45 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. — when school starts — the bank offers students a 5 percent interest rate on savings accounts with a minimum opening deposit of $10. Student employees process the account information, which then is entered into the system at the Reston branch of Cardinal Bank, where the money is stored.

Dressed in matching “Cardinal Kids Club” T-shirts, students logged the bank’s 80th account yesterday after just three weeks of operation.

“For this generation, when Social Security and some of those issues are up for discussion, it’s really important for them to understand the importance of saving,” school principal Beth English said. “We know that habits are formed very, very early.”

Any of the school’s 500 kindergarten-through-sixth-grade students are eligible to open accounts by turning in a completed form with a parent’s signature. Students deposit money independently but must visit Cardinal Bank with a parent to withdraw money.

“I’m saving probably to buy a laptop,” said Eric Kim, 10, a bank teller. “Are you going to open an account?” he asked a student wandering outside the window.

The bank at Sunrise Valley is one of four school branches sponsored by Cardinal to address what some have described as a financial-literacy crisis.

A survey of 5,775 high-school seniors released earlier this month by the JumpStart Coalition, a nonprofit financial-literacy organization, revealed that only 52.4 percent of students understand basic financial concepts, a marginal improvement over 52.3 percent in 2004.

“The statistics about kids’ being incapable of managing their own funds are pretty well-known, and it’s no different today than it was 10 years ago,” said Dave Gorham, head of business development for Apple Federal Credit Union’s student-run branches at 26 area high schools. “It’s a big topic because kids get themselves in such hot water with credit cards, they bounce checks — they don’t even know what bouncing checks is.”

Laura Levine, JumpStart Coalition executive director, said starting financial education early can make a difference.

“Personal finance is sophisticated, it’s multifaceted — there’s a lot of things to learn, so it’s hard to expect that anyone will learn all of it during their high-school years,” she said. “So, I think that if you introduce kids to money at an earlier age, even if it’s the basic stuff, then when they do get to middle and high school you can add to that, as opposed to learning about it all at once.”

Back at Sunrise Savings, Manjit Brar, who manages Cardinal Bank’s Reston branch, said the fifth-graders are catching on fast.

“They’re pretty quick learners,” said Ms. Brar, who helped train the team of student bankers on how to record deposits and read balance sheets. “We were a few dollars off at first — now we’re doing great.”

School and bank officials declined to say how much money is in student accounts.

“That’s not what it’s about,”said Michael Parker, a fifth-grade teacher who serves as the Sunrise Savings faculty adviser. “I bought my first car at 16 from the money I started saving in elementary school. I don’t think that, as families, we take the time to talk about finances.”

At 9:30 a.m., behind the bank window — a secretarial office that opens to a main hallway — tellers Ashley Sandoval and Kacie Wolcott tabulated the morning’s deposits, which totaled more than $1,000. They separated $5, $10 and $20 bills into piles, checked them against deposit slips and then placed them in a pouch with a Cardinal logo, which they handed to Ms. Brar.

Three minutes later, the girls were off to the gym: It was time to run the mile.

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