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Westmoreland credit union branches teach money sense to students

| Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Greensburg Central Catholic student tellers Dominic Walter (left), and Kaylene Chavez (right) work with Christine Saddler, is a financial literacy Advocate with the Westmoreland Community Federal Credit Union, during the junior high school lunch period at Greensburg Central Catholic on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016.

When Dominic Walter graduates from Greensburg Central Catholic High School this spring and heads off to study business at Washington & Jefferson College, he'll have some banking experience under his belt.

Walter, 17, of Greensburg has been working as a teller at a credit union established at his school in October in conjunction with the Westmoreland Community Federal Credit Union.

It is one of three “in-school” branches in Westmoreland County and among about 50 in Pennsylvania, officials say.

Branches at Central Catholic and Penn-Trafford High are an extension of the credit union's financial literacy program, which started in 2009.

The Norwin Teachers Federal Credit Union opened a branch in the Norwin High cafeteria for the 2012-13 school year.

Credit union branches are opening in cafeterias at elementary, middle and high schools across the country.

This growing trend “teaches people how to care for their money,” said Walter.

School officials said they saw an opportunity to further students hands-on learning while giving them a chance to play a role in their financial future when approached with the idea.

“You have to make school as relevant as possible,” said principal Donald Teti. “Money sense and a sense of understanding what money is all about is critical. ... In these days of $200 shoes, you can buy almost anything.”

The Penn-Trafford branch, which opened in 2013, has about 300 students participating; Central has about 20, said Christine Saddler, the credit union's financial literacy advocate.

They're having an impact.

After working as a teller at the Penn-Trafford branch during his senior year, Matt Senkow scrapped his plans to become an electrician and is pursuing a degree in finance and economics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“I enjoyed the work and decided to go that route,” said Senkow, 19, of Harrison City, a sophomore at IUP.

“He's learning; he's growing,” said Linda Stein, vice president of marketing and business development at Westmoreland Community Federal Credit Union. “He knows how to do a loan at 18 years old.”

It's been a longtime goal of the credit union to start student branches where kids can learn to become financially responsible, according to Stein. The programs established by the credit union won three awards from the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association.

Through its foundation, the association provides grants to help launch the branches, which are tied to the educational component.

“The branches work as a lab to reinforce what they are learning in the classroom,” said Michael A. Wishnow, vice president of marketing and communications at the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association. “It's a good introduction to mainstream financial services.”

Some 192 Norwin students are participating there, said Amy Lichwa, CEO of the Norwin Teachers Federal Credit Union.

“It helps them personally and society as a whole,” Lichwa said.

The credit union branches allow students to open checking and savings accounts, as well as deposit baby-sitting money or earnings from part-time jobs. They offer loan products especially designed for students.

“We do lunch loans,” Stein said.

Though interest in financial-literacy education is increasing, only 19 states required a course in personal finance to be offered to students in 2014, according to the New York-based Council for Economic Education. Pennsylvania is among those that don't.

Just four states — Missouri, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia — require students to take at least a one semester course on personal finance, according to the JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

“It gives them a sense of financial responsibility,” said Cindy Drozeski, manager of the student credit union at Norwin. “I had a student inquire about an IRA the other day.”

Craig Smith is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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