At Bell School, First Graders Are Already Planning for College

Published 04/04/2017

To celebrate Financial Literacy Month, we spoke with Ms. Emilie Kaim, first-grade teacher at Chicago Public School’s Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School. Ms. Kaim has championed the Climb to Safety program since its inception. The class was piloted in her room and she advocated for its inclusion at Bell with the principal. This year marks her 27th year teaching first grade at Bell with 27 students participating in Ms. Kaim’s financial literacy class.


How do your students feel about saving?

My students understand that people have to make many choices when it comes to money. Saving is one of the choices, even if it is not easy. Many of my students tell me they have piggy banks at home and then name some toy or another item they would ultimately like to purchase.

Even though this is far in the future for them, my first graders expect to go to college. Saving for college comes up every year during our financial literacy classes.


Which financial concepts do your students find most interesting?

The first-grade curriculum begins with the concepts of needs and wants. The students enjoy sharing examples of both. When they recall their personal experiences with these topics, it is a perfect introduction to financial literacy.

Since lecture is not the ideal form of instruction for young students, it is wonderful that the Climb to Safety program incorporates songs and movements, artwork and projects into the study of financial literacy.  Students get practice using the vocabulary when they sing songs. By the end of the year, they will also have a portfolio of artifacts they have created to help them remember the lessons.


How much progress have you seen from the beginning of the year to the end?

Since the beginning of the school year, my students’ proper use of the financial vocabulary presented to them has noticeably improved. We don’t forget that our learners are in first grade, so we purposefully introduce each financial concept in an age-appropriate manner.

For example, when reading A New Coat for Anna, the students were better able to understand the series of trades made throughout the story that resulted in Anna getting something she needed. On a recent field trip to an old-fashioned country store, the class incorporated the terms goods and services into our real-life lesson on consumption.

Familiarity with all of these concepts should result in greater comfort for these students when eventually dealing with their own personal finances.


Why do you think it is so difficult for parents to talk to their children about money?

Many adults have trouble understanding the very financial concepts that we are learning about in class. What’s more, they wrestle with the idea of saving for the future. Several parents have said to me that they wish they had learned the economic basics back when they were in school that their first-grade children are now studying.


How do you think your students will handle life’s financial challenges as they move to adulthood now that they have this foundation of knowledge?

Financial literacy is an important life skill. I believe my students will have a leg up on their money management skills in the future.

The class 529 College Savings Account that is part of the Climb to Safety program offers the class early firsthand experience with financial planning. Having this strong foundation of knowledge about financial concepts helps to provide students with the skills and confidence necessary to plan for their own financial futures.

This is my 27th year teaching at Bell, and I am excited about watching the Climb to Safety program grow with my former students as they advance through the grades.

Note: Every class that participates in Climb to Safety’s financial literacy program establishes its own 529 College Savings Account through donated funds. Classroom accounts are divided into individual 529 accounts for each participating student upon graduation.


Photo: Paper-flower collages decorate the windows of Ms. Emilie Kaim's first-grade classroom at Bell School. (Emilie Kaim) 


About Climb to Safety

Climb to Safety is devoted to teaching financial literacy to elementary school students. Founded by Forum advisor Michelle Weindruch, CFP®, Climb to Safety endeavors to bridge the financial knowledge gap and prepare students for many of the complex financial issues they will encounter as adults. For more information, visit

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