MARTINSBURG, W. Va. -- It may not be big news elsewhere but West Virginia has its first student-run credit union branch in a high school here. But it's a matter of time--and motivation--when the achievement might fit nationally into the industry's advocacy and awareness pitch.
"We do think it's pretty important that credit unions everywhere let us know when they open a student-run branch, and I have to confess I'm not surprised we didn't know about West Virginia's," lamented Philip Heckman, a CUNA official who tracks CU financial education activities.
Heckman is CUNA's director of youth programs at CUNA's Center for Personal Finance in Madison, Wis., who acknowledged that statistics on student-run branches--181 CUs operating 620 branches in 31 states--is information not widely disseminated in the industry's ongoing advocacy campaign.
Joining Heckman in getting the word out is Charlene Gaither, CEO of the $12 million Eastern Panhandle Community CU, who on her own has blazed the West Virginia trail to promote financial literacy and enlarge the CU profile.
Gaither herself has been tireless in meeting with educators, school teachers, city leaders and her own board to convince them that the commitment of resources and manpower to the new student-run facility at Hedgesville High School is worth the effort even though the initial payoff seems minimal.
"We know our numbers--50 accounts--look a bit low, but we're OK with that for now since we're in this for the long haul and besides, what is surprising is that the dollar amount of the accounts is $20,000," explained Gaither as she recalled the hours of staff work devoted to starting the Hedgesville student branch last September.
The president of the West Virginia Credit Union League, Kenneth Watts, lauded Gaither for pioneering the Hedgesville facility, reflecting the "deep commitment to teaching good money-management skills in the school."
"We hope Hedgesville will serve as a model for other credit unions," said Watts noting that other West Virginia CUs have developed "close ties to schools in their areas and are involved in such activities as Partnership in Education as well as teaching various courses at all grade levels."
Still, getting more CUs to open student-run branches in West Virginia or elsewhere depends on a number of factors, with financing an obvious major priority with politics added in, considering local banks hold sway on school boards, according to CUNA officials.
As for the expense, Juri Valdov, the former CUNA chairman and now head of the organization's Financial Literacy Task Force, said he would "love to see a movement goal to have a branch in every high school, but the reality is there are concerns about costs and field of membership constraints."
Nonetheless, it has been shown that youngsters who participate in financial education programs are better at dealing with the financial world and as a result become better citizens, said Valdov, who also is senior vice president of external affairs at Northwest FCU in Herndon, Va.
"I have always felt that financial literacy should be a strategic goal for every credit union and a line item in every budget, not because it is hard but because it is the right thing to do for the future of our children," said Valdov.
As for Gaither, she said it may take a while before trust is built up among students and parents and school administrators to realize that as CUs, "we're here to do the right thing for them to help with financial education. We're not here just to take the money and run."
Like CUs elsewhere banker roadblocks can be formidable, say Gaither.
Part of the issue, she said, could be the bank business and education partnerships that exist.
"I know that our school contacted its bank partner and cleared our branch with them before giving us the final OK," said Gaither. "The bank really wasn't interested considering their own bank-at-school, once-a-month visits didn't pan out for them before."
Other schools in the area, she said, may be concerned "that if they allow a credit union in, the bank will quit supporting them financially. Would bankers do that? Hmmmm."
She said Eastern Panhandle chose to be what she said is a "county education business- partner-at-large and not be affiliated with any one school so there is no perception of conflict."
"One last thing," she added, however. "I've contacted every other high school in the tricounty area about providing the same services for their students and not one reply."
In promoting the Hedgesville branch, Gaither said her CU has used various campaigns, including an innovative prom night discount for limousine service.
"I can't stress how important it is to have the administration behind us," she said, noting that the Hedgesville principal has regular morning announcements about the branch.
Overall, the Eastern Panhandle experience, said CUNA, reflects both the success and the frustrations of developing more student-run branches.
Heckman said his job is to coordinate with state leagues to get them to tell the center about successful student-run branches so experiences can be shared.
Often times, league staffs are occupied with other projects and sometimes don't see the importance of informing CUNA. "Credit unions simply don't blow their own horn," he concluded.