Union eighth-grade students learn realities of lifeMar 08, 2023 01:06PM ● By Julie Slama
Canyons Board of Education Vice President Mont Millerberg helps eighth-grade students balance their budgets at Union Middle’s Reality Town. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
Union Middle School parent Clair Hamill brought his son, Rowan, to school on Jan. 10. That day transformed his eighth-grader.
“When I brought him to school yesterday, he was just my son; when I picked him up, he was still my son, but I was a grandfather,” he joked. “He had three kids and a wife. I told him I had to start getting a lot more involved in his life because obviously I missed all that.”
Hamill’s son got his mock life scenario the day before his father volunteered Jan. 11 at Union’s Reality Town, a role-playing opportunity for students to follow a financial literacy curriculum to better understand real life. As an army veteran, Hamill chose to station the military recruitment booth along with another volunteer who actually is a recruiter.
“I got the email saying they needed volunteers, and it looked like a fun way to hang out with kids in school and help them,” he said. “I like how realistic this makes it. How better can it be because Rowan has to pay bills and figure out childcare. He was complaining how much that cost and I said, ‘Dude, I know. I was there.’ He has to plan and do some quick math to learn how to balance his financial situation.”
Since 2016, Union students have learned how to balance careers and family on a set budget, said counselor Lynn Nelson.
“The day before, we give them their jobs and let them look through the booklet that outlines what they’re responsible for,” she said. “They have to determine their transportation, groceries, housing and everything for their families.”
Their professions are set by Reality Town’s company, based on students’ grade-point averages.
According to Reality Town, the interactive simulation also encourages better school performance.
“By using GPA requirements in correlation with the educational requirements of the various careers, students who are not putting in their best effort at school may not be able to get the job they want in Reality Town such as students with a C average cannot become doctors, or lawyers,” the website states. “In using this system, students who are applying themselves can see the wide range of options available to them. On the other hand, students who are not putting forth their best effort in school are able to see their limited options, as well as possibly limited income potential.”
Reality Town also sets students’ marital status and if they are parents.
“It tells them if their spouses have an income or if they stay home and how many children they have and need to be responsible for,” Nelson said. “We talk to students about taxes about where a tax goes and about health and dental insurance and why it’s important to have it.”
At Union, it even teaches them about following the rules as the school’s DARE officer handed out violations for loitering, speeding, vandalism, improper passing and other disobediences.
Afterward, students can reflect upon questions that are provided or teachers may opt to hold discussions or assignments based upon the activity, Nelson said.
“The biggest thing is it’s a shock to a lot of them to see what life may be like when they’re 30 years old. They role play that they have a month’s net pay with or without their spouse’s money. Then they learn this is what a car costs, this is what housing costs, this is what groceries are going to cost and all those things. And some have no idea,” she said. “It’s just like the game of life and they want to win. It’s teaching them to set goals now to impact their future.”
Dozens of volunteers from parents and community members to high school students, including some who did it themselves in middle school, and even Canyons Board of Education Vice President Mont Millerberg, took part to ensure the eighth-graders could take part in the learning activity.
Eighth-grader Andy Sutherland’s mother, Natacha Meyer, volunteered at the personal care station.
“This is a good exercise for the children to become aware of what it means to live in the world that we live in today, the kinds of responsibilities that are ahead of them and the importance of taking their education seriously,” she said. “I’m at personal care because I want them to learn that we have only one body in life and it is fundamental to take care of it.”
She hopes her son “gets an understanding for the way our society works and that enthusiasm to participate in it with consciousness and awareness.”
He already has a basic understanding of how to budget, prioritize bills and be careful with spending, she said.
Parent Josh Larsen said he finds volunteering rewarding.
“If you want to do well in life, take time to do some volunteering,” he said. “You’ll find some happiness involved and by doing so, it’s helping the students.”
While Larsen’s son had a Reality Town job in the medical field, he chose to staff the entertainment station.
“We let them pick which kind of entertainment they want, then we help them do the math, deducting it from their total. We encourage them to make wise decisions,” he said. “Some students come here first, but I suggest that maybe they should get some of their basics, like housing, first.”
Eighth-grader Arkady Wilson purchased a $75 movie pass for his family of five. He already had visited the doctor’s office and childcare booth as he navigated the Reality Town stations.
“I’m learning to find ways to pay for everything based on my income and that of my wife’s,” Arkady said.
At the entertainment station with Larsen was Hillcrest High senior Sohil Narra, who advised students about their choices not only in the game, but in their near future.
“I wanted to be a part of it because financial literacy is a big deal,” he said. “As I plan for college, a lot of my decisions will come to financial aid so it’s good to know what my options are. Coming here and teaching younger kids about making good financial decisions is a good way to help the community especially with things they’ll be focused on in the future. I want them to see what their options are and sticking to what they know is best for them rather than giving into temptation like buying a car or buying a PS5 (PlayStation 5). It’s about making smart choices.”