As hundreds of students took the left turn from the hallway into the cafeteria at Mount Vernon High School, one turned right. She walked into Apple Credit Union’s Major Branch, where she had an account, and gave Berkeley McHugh, the bank manager, her $20 bill.
She told McHugh she wanted to make a $19 deposit, and keep $1 for lunch. McHugh happily went to the safe to make the change.
“That’s the kind of stuff we do,” McHugh said after the girl had left, “the little services that people don’t think about.” She said that earlier in the day, a student had dropped by to deposit $2.
McHugh is proud of the small sums involved in most students’ transactions. “She could have kept $5 and gotten junk,” she remarked of the girl that asked for only $1.
“If we can encourage those kinds of patterns by being here and being convenient, isn’t that’s great?”
The Major credit union is the second oldest in the Fairfax School system. It opened in 1999, according to Dave Gorham, Apple’s manager of business development. Last year it opened more than 100 new accounts and won the “Branch of the Year” award.
The newest Apple Credit Union branch is right down the road, in the cafeteria of West Potomac High School. It opened last year and is staffed by students from the Pulley Center, West Potomac’s special education job-training center. Of the 26 credit unions in the county, it is the only one to be staffed completely by special education students, Gorham said.
Jeremy Parks has been a student at the Pulley Center for five years. He began working at the Wolverine credit union a few weeks ago, and is learning fast. He said he has no trouble handling bills, but coins can still trip him up. “This is my first time figuring out how to do this banking thing.”
The credit union, said Parks’ supervisor, Pulley teacher Gerry VanPelt, “fits right in with our program. It’s teaching basic skills to compete for jobs in the real world after they leave here.”
But the banking program has higher stakes than other job training activities VanPelt has supervised. “It was a little more challenging because you’re responsible not only for students but also for someone else’s money.”
Her six students have responded to those responsibilities. “They’re very enthused when they get here. They want to be here. They want to do the work.”
McHugh, a business teacher at Mount Vernon, recruits her volunteer staff from her accounting classes. Working at the credit union “is not necessarily a very difficult process,” she said, “but we’re very precise. We’re details oriented, which is critical in banking.”
“I emphasize that in my accounting classes and they can see how important that is here.”
THE APPLE CREDIT UNION is a non-profit organization that performs many of the same functions as a bank, according to Gorham. Fairfax County teachers created it in the 1950s, and it has been tied to the educational community ever since. More than a decade ago, the credit union decided to experiment with branches in high schools. It opened the first at Lee High School, the second at Mount Vernon and, said Gorham, “it expanded dramatically from there.”
He said that the banking industry is aware that “students have been very uneducated about financial issues when they leave high school and go to college.” On their own for the first time, young people lacking the financial savvy to recognize high interest rates and unfavorable loans can find themselves beholden to credit cards or financing companies. The in-school credit unions “let them get sincere advice from people right down the hall from them instead of down the street.”
And although students gain from the programs, Gorham stressed that the school credit unions are also good business. “The benefit to the credit union is we have loyal members trained in excellent financial habits.” He said Apple now has Lee High School alumni who are 29 years old and coming to them for mortgages.
But in the Mount Vernon Branch, most transactions are still calculated in one or two digits, not six. Alisha Wilkerson, a junior, has her money direct-deposited into her Apple account from her job across the street at the George Washington Recreation Center. She said she’d opened her first “real” bank account nine months ago.
She’d come in that day to withdraw $5 for lunch. “It’s easier to get money out in school than having to go to your bank,” she said.