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Noah Axelson (left) and Stephen MacKeller (right) pose for a photo in their gymnasium. They worked to create the Financial Fitness in Action Program at the school.

Money Talks

A s the sun rose early at Shadow Ridge High School in the fall of 2022, students had some big decisions to make - should I buy a large house or live in a one bedroom apartment? Do I have enough extra money to go out to eat this weekend?  Is that name-brand cereal that is two dollars more than the generic really worth it?  While these questions are crucial to adults, do students in high school really think about these things? 

Stephen MacKeller and Noah Axelson, both students at Shadow Ridge, would answer, “absolutely, they should!” to the question posed above. In coordination with the Arizona Council of Economic Education (ACEE), MacKellar and Axelson worked to implement the Financial Fitness in Action program at Shadow Ridge this past Fall.  

“A lot of students go into their daily lives after high school lacking budgeting skills and proper spending skills and we wanted to bring that education to our classmates,” said Axelson

“This program would help these students understand many of the real-world costs and help them budget for their adult life after high school,” said MacKeller.

Student participants at Shadow Ridge High School speak to community volunteers to plan their budget as part of the Financial Literacy Program implemented by Noah Axelson and Stephen MacKeller.
Matthew Kuffel, Assistant Principal at Shadow Ridge High Schools speaks  to students about their experience at the Financial Literacy event.

More than 150 students from Business Marketing and Economics classes at Shadow Ridge High School participated in the Financial Fitness in Action event over the course of two hours this past November. ACEE supplied the materials along with industry volunteers to help facilitate the program.

Students participated in a fun, interactive, life-after high school simulation of saving, spending, and budgeting based on career choices and lifestyle decisions.  Based on the career, salary, and credit score assigned, students made decisions that affect their finances, such as renting an apartment on their own or having a roommate, buying or leasing a vehicle, purchasing phones and/or cable, and saving for their retirement. 

Stephen and Noah, who are Business and Marketing students and participate in the Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) Career and Technical Student Organization (CTSO), planned the event from start to finish. 

Business Marketing is a Career and Technical Education program within the Dysart Unified School District, which prepares students for employment in various sales, customer service, advertising and promotion, and first-line supervisory positions. Students are able to explore, understand, and apply marketing, management, and entrepreneurial principles. 

Both students saw the lack of knowledge in their fellow classmates when it comes to finances and planning and thought the event would be helpful to teach students about budgeting and saving.

“You see the common trope of a 16-year-old who gets a job and blows all their paycheck and then complains that they have no money,” shared Stephen.

The main goal of bringing the event to Shadow Ridge was to provide high school aged students with information on financial literacy in an accessible way. Additionally, Noah and Stephen needed a project subject to compete in the DECA state competition held in February 2023.

DECA is one of the many CTSOs available for CTE students. DECA prepares emerging leaders and entrepreneurs in marketing, finance, hospitality and management in high schools and provides opportunities for state, national and international travel through internships, camps and leadership conferences.

Stephen did research on different curriculum throughout the state and found the ACEE opportunity. The Financial Fitness in Action was brought to the school previously but on a smaller scale through Zoom as the group was not hosting in-person events at time due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Stephen MacKellar speaks on camera to ABC15 reporter, Nick Ciletti, who covered  the Financial Fitness in Action event as a feature for a news story.
Shadow Ridge High School DECA students, including Noah Axelson and Stephen MacKeller pose with awards at the Arizona DECA Conference in February.

Stephen and Noah worked closely with their Business Marketing teacher, Mollie Fussell, and school administration to implement the event.  Both students served as project managers and took the extensive steps to bring Financial Literacy in Action to the Shadow Ridge High School campus.

MacKellar and Axelson held preliminary meetings with ACEE representatives to begin the planning process.  They planned out logistics for the event setup and reached out to teachers to allow class time for the event and requested that participation points be allocated by each teacher to ensure students were engaged during the event.  

“Stephen and Noah did a very great job in coordinating this event and took pride in doing it,” shared Michelle Bohon, Lead Counselor at Shadow Ridge High School.  Mrs. Bohon supported and encouraged them throughout the planning process and was a volunteer at the Housing table during the event. 

The day of the event began early as set up for the event needed to be completed prior to first hour students arriving during their scheduled time.  

Students were given a rubric that listed their occupation, income as well as family information.  Participants went to a series of decision-making stations led by community volunteers, industry leaders, teachers, and counselors where they discussed budget and guided students in planning for housing, healthcare, auto insurance, groceries, entertainment, and more.  As students spoke to volunteers at each station, they made financial decisions to complete their budgeting rubric.

One example of an occupational profile utilized for the event was a chef who earned $57,711 annually.  After the various budgeting components were filled out, a Wheel of Life station manned by Stephen and Noah threw a wrench in their money planning decisions.

Much like life, finances can be unpredictable. Students spun the wheel of life and were faced with surprise, real-life situations such as traffic tickets and car repairs that impacted their financial planning.  

“This step was important because it represented random mishaps that happen throughout life that you can’t really budget for but you have to be ready for,” said Stephen.

“Students that planned well and had savings leftover could budget for those incidents and others went back to previous stations to try to cut back on things like entertainment,” said Noah.

As students were completing the exercise, many were surprised at the actual cost of items and how much they do not know about financial planning.

“It was cool to see how happy my fellow students were when they were under budget, how shocked they were about how much they spent on life necessities, and the sacrifices they had to make as they were going through the process,” said Axelson.

The event also elicited funny responses: “I am never moving out of my parents house,” shared one participant and a freshman student at the Entertainment planning table said, “my kids are going to the fire station for a free, fun outing versus an expensive day at the movie theater.” 

“I definitely feel the seniors had a more optimistic attitude and were more engaged in the activity as they are on the cusp of making these important financial decisions as they get closer to buying a car or renting an apartment,” shared Stephen.

The response of the event was overwhelmingly positive as a survey was given prior to the event and an exit survey was administered after the completion of the event.  Data referenced that  91.7% of the students stated they “strongly agree” with the fact that they learned something from the program.

These data findings were included in Stephen and Noah’s project at the DECA Arizona State Career Development (SCDC) conference held at the Arizona Grand in February 2023. 

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“We submitted a 20-page paper based on the culminating project named Smart Money dictating the journey we took with this Financial Literacy event,” shared MacKeller.  “The competition also included a 15 minute presentation with visual displays in front of a judge.”

“The preparation for state is quite substantial and students are given class time to write, interview and practice verbal presentations,” shared Mrs. Fussell.  “We have this great program through DECA+ that includes sample role play events and the top three winners from the previous year so they can see the quality expected.”

Stephen and Noah had great success at the conference and earned second place at the state level for their Financial Literacy project and will compete at the DECA International Career Development Conference hosted in Orlando, Florida in April 2023. 

Along with Stephen and Noah’s efforts to bring this valuable event to Shadow Ridge, and their accolades at state, Financial Literacy in Action will serve as one of five components needed to qualify students at Shadow Ridge to earn the Arizona Seal of Personal Finance.  

The seal recognizes high school students who achieve a high level of proficiency in Personal Finance. The seal is placed upon the student’s diploma and noted on their transcript.  Students in Business Marketing classes can earn the additional four requirements for the seal in only two years.

Stephen and Noah were successful in meeting their goal as shared in their Smart Money paper submitted at state, “The goal of the project is to provide high school students at Shadow Ridge High School with knowledge on financial literacy that they will be able to use, and carry into their adult lives.” 


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