By Jill Tucker
Education Writer, San Francisco Chronicle
Parents at one Oakland middle school won't have to go to a bank or a brokerage firm to get advice on how to manage debt, save money or improve their credit score. They can go to school.
Their child's school.
In a former classroom at the end of a hall at Westlake Middle School, parents can get a range of financial services in the new United Way-sponsored SparkPoint center, including a personal coach to guide them through the ins and out of budgeting based on income and planning for long-term economic stability.
They are skills many low-income parents lack that can lead to instability in students' homes and ultimately poor academic performance in school, said Ed Center, senior director of education for the United Way of the Bay Area.
"We believe that young people that live in poor communities come to school with a lot of baggage," he said. "Schools should be solutions to those problems so they come in ready to learn."
Westlake parents who fall below the county's self-sufficiency standard - an indication of poverty - qualify to participate in the program at the school, which includes an initial five-session group seminar on income, employment, debt, credit and saving money.
Those who complete four of the five sessions get $100 to put toward their child's college fund.
Out of the first group of 14 parents who completed the seminar requirements, 13 had never opened a savings account before.
The $100 was their first deposit, Center said.
After the group sessions, each parent is then assigned a personal finance coach to work with for three years, guiding them away from check-cashing centers and to steady paychecks that go into checking and savings accounts.
When they need advice, they pop into the center, which looks more like a friendly financial office space, with a couch, a throw rug, and two cubicles offering coaches and parents privacy.
Westlake parent Dorothy Cooper was among the first parents to participate in the SparkPoint program.
As a child, she was intimately familiar with instability, bouncing around 16 Oakland schools before she graduated.
Now with three children, she graduated from community college and will head to California State University East Bay in the spring.
Yet financially, she lived day to day.
"For years I've struggled to make ends meet," she said.
To make matters worse, her identity was stolen twice in the past two years.
SparkPoint taught her how to build credit, how to budget her money and how to save.
"That's not something a lot of parents focus on," she said. "If you save $2 a day, it's $730 in a year!"
Educators and school officials have always known that once a child gets to school, the adults there could feed children, keep them warm and give them hugs, said Mayor Jean Quan, who attended the center's ceremonial opening Thursday.
"But they went home to really tough situations," she said. "This program follows them home and gives the parents a hug, too."
The program is free to parents and doesn't require the school to cover any costs. The schools offer classroom space and provide bandwidth and staff time to recruit families, Center said. The goal is to work with 75 parents this school year and expand in coming years.
While there are 10 community- and school-based centers in the Bay Area, Westlake's program is unique.
It will track whether helping parents stabilize their finances will lead to improved student performance in school.
Researchers will look at attendance, grades, behavior and test scores. United Way hopes to open five similar centers in the Bay Area.
While there is a strong link between low academic performance and poverty, there's little information on whether increasing parents' financial literacy and boosting family credit scores and savings accounts will translate quickly to better report cards and fewer absences, Center said.
"This is a straight-up, antipoverty initiative," he said. "It's a no-brainer, but it hasn't been tested."