A learning experience you can bank on

By Greg Gelpi

Filing through long bank lines, customers eagerly deposited their savings Wednesday, but what was unusual was that all of the bank employees and customers were under five feet tall.

The youth bank, owned and operated by the students of Lee Street Elementary, cashed in on big savings and an even bigger learning opportunity.

"You get to do something interesting," fifth-grader and bank manager Darius Pendergraft said, adding that he wants to be a banker when he gets older.

Teaming up with SunTrust Bank, the school's savings have grown to $50,000 in its three years of operation and the educational value exceeds that.

"We saw the need to start educating young people teaching them money management skills," SunTrust Vice President of Community Affairs Jackie Pendleton said. "It's a win-win situation all the way around. We're establishing a future for them and the bank."

Students endured testing and interviews before the field of 55 was narrowed to the final 12 to be employees at the bank. Fourth and fifth-graders are tellers, customer service representatives, security guards and bank managers, performing all of the functions performed at a normal bank.

Lee Street students are allowed to deposit money each Wednesday morning as they would at a regular bank. The money is then placed in each student's account at SunTrust.

Learning responsibility, the students manage thousands of dollars of their fellow students' money and must clock in and out. As with a real job, youth bank employees not doing so could get fired.

At 7:15 a.m. Wednesdays, elementary students man their stations for an hour, signing up new accounts, counting money and filling out bank books.

"Kids are constantly asking when the bank is going to open," said Sandra Landers, a teacher at Lee Street who oversees the bank. "That amazes me how much money they deposit."

Depositing anywhere from a handful of change to wads of cash, about 400 of the 500 students invest in the savings account during the school year. The bank processed about 100 transactions Wednesday, but did about 400 each day last school year when the school year was in full swing and before some of the students were reassigned to a new school.

In May, SunTrust will write checks to the students in the amount of their deposits with money added as a match. SunTrust will pay the students in increments, giving as little as $5 for a $10 to $25 investment or as much as $25 for a $150 to $500 investment.

"We encourage kids to raise their own money or give their ice cream money," Landers said. "They're learning to work a real job. I think it's really good for their work ethic."

SunTrust has nine youth banks in the metro Atlanta area, including six schools and three churches with Lee Street being the only location in Clayton County.