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"Game Theory Academy,"

by Patricia Johnson January/February 2011 issue of Poverty & Race

In 2010, The Witt Award again [this was a renewal of the previous year’s grant] contributed to the development of my vision for the Game Theory Academy. Sixty-five youth completed the full ten-session GTA curriculum, and another 30 participated in one-time workshops at special conferences for foster youth.

Just this week [Dec. 10, 2010], thanks to a fabulous intern from UC Berkeley’s Economics Department, we tabulated the results of participants’ 2010 pre/post evaluation surveys. We learned that:
  • 100% of the students who at the beginning said they do not enjoy school or learning said that they enjoyed the Game Theory Academy course. We are impacting not only their economic literacy but their future potential for educational attainment.

  • The 20% of students who at the beginning said they were “definitely” not confident in how to manage their money all felt improvement as a result of the class. 100% of participants said by the end of the course they felt confident in their ability to manage their money.

  • 100% of the students who at the beginning said they did not have a good relationship with money reported that they did have a better relationship with money as a result of the course.
These statistics help me see that I am moving the meter on financial empowerment among the most vulnerable young people in my community. Among the 135 youth who have taken GTA classes to date: 55% have been in foster care; 40% have been involved in the criminal justice system; 70% grew up in single-parent homes; 19% have a family member who has filed for bankruptcy. Despite these so-called disadvantages, 67% aspire to attend college, and many have specific career interests. GTA supports these individuals in making decisions and preparing financially to achieve their goals.

The mandate for my Witt Award this year was to work with alumni students to develop case studies that I can integrate back into the curriculum so it is increasingly based on real young people’s decisions. To date, I have worked with 30+ alumni who have written case studies on everything from budgeting, stealing and getting scammed to fights, binge spending and overdraft protection. I am currently using 11 of these case studies in the curriculum. Short descriptions of a few are below:

Not Fully Informed. Tatavia writes a check to young people selling magazines door-to-door to raise funds for a trip, thinking she can easily call and cancel the check. She learns that she should have called her bank directly to cancel the check, or even better, not written the check at all. Concepts: Best interest, imperfect information, checking account basics.

Toxic Debt. Ashley’s worst fears about debt and owing people money come true when in desperation she applies for a loan she sees on a flyer at the grocery store. Concepts: Opportunity cost, risk tolerance, best interest.

Budgeting for College. Toya has been accepted to a four-year university but has no financial support from her family. Evaluate Toya’s strategy to earn money over the summer and where she needs to cut back her budget for the first semester of college to meet the gap between her expenses and her financial aid award. Concepts: Constraints, gross vs. net income, fixed expenses, variable necessities, variable non-necessities.

The Cost of My Future. Jack’s decision to confess to stealing an iPod at school marks the end of a cycle of stealing and the beginning of a new approach to overcoming his family’s lack of resources. Concepts: Best interest, strategic decisions, constraints.

Overdraft Protection? Michael thought overdraft protection would prevent him from spending more than he had in his checking account. He was wrong. Concepts: Debit cards, overdraft protection.

Each of the young people who were brave and diligent enough to complete (several revisions of!) her/his case study receives a $50 honorarium. It is consistent with our mission to pay them for this valuable contribution to the GTA curriculum and their follow-through on a challenging, rewarding task. Increasingly, other organizations are requesting use of GTA case studies for their own educational activities with youth. We are working out a strategy on how best to make the case studies available to educators more widely, while we continue to work with alumni who are willing to share their stories with us.
With a strong, tested curriculum in hand, my top priority for the coming year is to prove that GTA is a replicable model—that this transformative decision-making toolkit can scale up and reach an increasing number of youth each year. The first prong of this strategy to is to hire a part-time instructor to work with me in 2011. Secondly, I aim to build a matched savings program that will keep youth involved over a longer period, offer hands-on ways to apply what they’ve learned and develop more robust techniques to evaluate our impact on their lives.

Each month, we are approached by several new organizations to partner in offering GTA’s curriculum to their youth participants. I am unable—though willing!—to meet their demand for our service. The time to boost GTA’s capacity is now, so that I don’t miss the opportunity to build partnerships and impact the lives of young adults. Developing an alumni program to keep participants connected over longer periods of time will benefit their development and improve GTA’s evaluation metrics. While thinking about how to do this, we encountered the matched savings “movement,” thanks to GTA’s selection as an “innovative idea” by the Corporation for Enterprise Development. A matched savings program would be an ideal method to achieve two goals: Incentivize youth to stay involved and provide a practical way to apply the GTA toolkit to their real lives.

My success in getting this far with GTA is thanks in large part to partners like you who invested in my vision at the very early stages. Thank you so much!

Patricia Johnson, PO Box 11225, Oakland, CA 94611, 510/459-0938.

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