When Alan Sitkoff first volunteered in Florida classrooms 10 years ago, he was struck by an alarming fact: Kids had no role models for financial literacy because their own parents could not manage the family finances.
“When you tell your kids ‘don’t smoke’ or ‘don’t drink,’ they understand it. But when it comes to financial stuff, these kids are clueless. Yet they are such a hot commodity. They are being courted by everyone; they’re besieged with credit card offers. The message is spend-spend-spend,” says Sitkoff, first vice-president-wealth management for Smith Barney in Orlando. “And they just don’t get it.”
Over the last decade, Sitkoff, 54, has talked to thousands of students in the Orlando region’s public and private schools. Earlier this year, he received the Florida Commissioner’s Business Recognition Award for his work at promoting high student achievement and building a better learning environment.
A sole practitioner with $135 million in assets under management, Sitkoff calls himself “a frustrated teacher at heart.” When his own two girls were in middle and high school, he says he began to recognize the absence of financial literacy among students. “I just wanted to help these kids maybe get some direction before they went out in the real world,” says Sitkoff. “Basically, I wanted to help them get a foothold. And what I discovered is what a rush it is watching people achieve something maybe they wouldn’t have achieved before.”
Along the way, Sitkoff, an advisor for 20 years, has taught as much in the way of life’s lessons as financial literacy.
“When I go into these classes, it’s really not just to talk about stocks and bonds but how to make an impression on people,” he says. “Your first impression is your best, so we talk about etiquette, dress, how to respect people in the workplace. I’d have to say some of the biggest discussions have not been on the investment side but: How do you make a good impression when you apply for a job?”
Sitkoff routinely tells students to write thank you notes when someone does something nice for them. “It’s something most people don’t do; it makes an impression,” he says. “Out of 15 kids recently, five sent me a note. To me, that shows I got through to five kids. I’m not going to get through to all of them.”
Among the “real-life issues” Sitkoff has explored in the classroom: students’ failure to understand how expensive college is; teaser rates offered by health clubs that lock you in to a payment; how to start a business; the unrealistic expectations that come in a youth culture that’s skewed toward immediate gratification.
Sitkoff has observed a huge divide between urban schools and what he calls the “upper-echelon schools” where sixth graders are conversant on subjects like trust funds and hedge funds.
“It’s exciting. When I talk to these guys they have questions that are unbelievable,” he says. “The disconcerting thing is that they are eons ahead of some of the urban schools. It’s sad. I can only hope through my small contribution that I can expose them to good information.”
At the moment, Sitkoff is spending half of his time in high schools with targeted business programs. The schools participate in the National Academy Foundation, founded by Citigroup Chairman Emeritus Sandy Weill in 1982. Today, there are more than 630 academies in schools nationwide. Academy students remain together throughout their high school years with a core group of specially trained teachers — basically a school within a school.
In one of the schools Sitkoff visits, eleventh-grade volunteers, sanctioned by the Internal Revenue Service, are doing tax returns for elderly and low-income people. They also mentor kids at the elementary school next door.