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VOL. 112 | NO. 175 | Monday, September 28, 1998

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By STACEY PETSCHAUER Learning life's lessons Consumer competition helps teens prepare for life in the marketplace By STACEY PETSCHAUER The Daily News For the second consecutive year, Tennessee teen-agers have the opportunity to participate in a competition that helps prepare them for life in the "real world." "LifeSmarts the ultimate consumer challenge," was developed and is sponsored by the National Coalition for Consumer Education, a non-profit organization that seeks to help consumers of all ages become responsible participants in the marketplace. LifeSmarts is an educational competition that focuses on five areas of consumer knowledge: personal finance, health and safety, environment, technology, and consumer rights and responsibilities. The NCCE started the program in 1994 because the organization saw a need to educate high school-age students about consumer issues, said Joan Moir, project coordinator for the NCCE. "We hear a lot from school teachers, and we also hear from students and parents, Gee, we dont understand," Moir said. "The kids dont understand the concepts of credit cards and how a checkbook works and things like that. "Some school systems teach it well, but some dont, and it sort of falls through the cracks in the floor, so to speak," she said. Moir said many students go off to college, take out credit cards, max them out immediately and get into trouble, all because they dont understand the concept of credit. "So, were trying to help them learn it before they get into that situation, so theyll be better consumers and understand these issues before they get in trouble," she said. The LifeSmarts program, a competition that operates on several levels, began four years ago as a pilot program in four test cities: Phoenix, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Denver. The NCCE borrowed the idea for LifeSmarts from a program that has existed for several years in the United Kingdom, said Carole Glade, executive director of the NCCE. "We liked the concept, we piloted, it definitely worked, and it encourages kids to learn the subject matter, and we reward them in a fun way," Glade said. The pilot program took place in about 30 schools in the four test cities. The program now is in almost 45 states, Glade said. "Weve grown substantially in just a couple of years," she said. This is the second year Tennessee has offered the LifeSmarts program. It is sponsored by the Tennessee Division of Consumer Affairs. The program is unique in Tennessee because it is conducted on the Internet, said Wendy Waldron, consumer protection specialist with the Division of Consumer Affairs. The competition is first offered on an individual level, through which students complete a series of three online tests. If a student has a score of 80 percent or higher on those tests, he or she qualifies to be placed on a team that will go on to compete in a face-to-face statewide competition in Nashville. Teams consist of four students and one alternate, and each team must have an adult coach, Waldron said. Teams typically are affiliated with high schools the top scorers from each school are placed on teams with other students from their school. However, community groups and organizations also can form teams, as long as team members are in grades nine through 12, she said. Conducting the initial phases of the competition on the Internet has allowed Tennessee to reach a broad array of students with the program, Waldron said. "We had the biggest turnout for the first year of any state, just because we touched so many more people than we would have if we had conducted the competition individually everywhere in the state," she said. Students can register for LifeSmarts online through Oct. 23 at http://www.state.tn.us/consumer/lifesmarts. The Web site contains facts about the LifeSmarts program, along with a practice test, information about the programs sponsors, details about participation in the program and other information. The competition and registration is free. The only cost for participants is travel to and from Nashville for the state championship competition, Waldron said. The Division of Consumer Affairs covers travel and lodging expenses for the state champions to attend the regional and national competitions, which will be held in New York City April 27-29. Deborah Dodson, assistant librarian at Milan High School, coached last years state champion team at the national competition, which was held in Phoenix. "It was the first time the students had done it, so when we went to the national level, we didnt really know how the questions would be asked or how fast," she said. "For their first competition, they really had a chance to experience it and see how it works." Dodson said she feels the LifeSmarts program helps students get ready to make important life decisions. "I think it prepares them, going into either the work force or into college, to make decisions on how they are going to spend their money whether to get an apartment, whether to get a 15-year loan mortgage those types of questions that they are going to come across," she said. "It just teaches them things that theyre going to face that, if they didnt have this to study and learn, they wouldnt really have a clue about." Angelika Hall of Bartlett coached an independent team in last years competition. "Most of the other teams were sponsored by schools," Hall said. "I had the ones in situations where schools had kids who were interested but not enough to form a team. "So, I got one from Kirby High School and a couple of kids from Gibson County, and then my son, who was a home-schooler," she said. Hall said she feels the LifeSmarts program is an unique initiative. "I have learned a lot. I think I can speak for all of the parents because some of the questions that are asked, a lot of us parents did not know how to answer. "There have been I dont know how many opportunities in the last year that I had consumer questions legal questions, insurance questions that I would have to turn to my son and say, Wait a minute what did you learn about this?" she said. She said LifeSmarts offers teens a chance to learn about a broad range of consumer-related topics. "It is amazing how much useful information was in there that the children dont get in any kind of course work, any kind of curriculum, that most of us adults have learned the hard way after weve signed a contract or made some kind of mistake," she said. More than 200 students participated in the LifeSmarts program last year in Tennessee, and the Division of Consumer Affairs already has had more than 200 inquiries this year, Waldron said. Anyone interested in participating in LifeSmarts, either high school-age students or adults interested in coaching a LifeSmarts team, can contact the Division of Consumer Affairs at (800) 342-8385 or visit the LifeSmarts Web site. Glade said teaching kids about consumer issues early helps them as they go through life. "When you look at the money that kids spend, they are a tremendous marketplace force, and half the time they dont even know it," Glade said. "As of 1995, every dollar that teen-agers earned, they spent 85 cents of it. "They make decisions today that are going to impact their future. They are the future parents. Theyre going to be the future business leaders. Were really putting a lot into their hands. So, we need to make sure they are able to handle it," she said.

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