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Joshua Martel, in kindergarten at Fernan Elementary, offers $4.87 to Ann Siebert from Sterling Savings Bank Tuesday. Martel hopes some day to buy a scooter.

Saving: It's elementary

Bank opens accounts for the children

Staff writer

Wednesday, October 4, 2000

COEUR d'ALENE -- Note to scooter dealers: concentrate on the youth.

Even kids of kindergarten age are announcing their intentions to save toward one of the flashy new foot- or electric-powered scoots.

This was demonstrated Tuesday morning at Fernan Elementary, when students of all ages brought their dollar bills and loose change in to be counted and deposited in their own special savings account.

"It's not how much they put in that's important, but that they have fun," said Ann Siebert, a personal banker with Sterling Savings Bank and also the parent of two Fernan students.

Each week, students are asked to make deposits for their accounts, which are noted in their own passbook. Siebert and other volunteers try to make the transaction enjoyable by offering Tootsie Pops and stickers, along with chatting with each student.

"How much do you have today?"

"Do you need help counting?"

"What are you saving for?"

Scooters seemed to be on the minds of everyone from kindergarten age to the higher grades. A few said they want to start saving for college, and one child drew laughs for "a lizard."

The names of everyone with regular deposits are placed in a drawing, and once a month, three names are drawn and the winners given T-shirts.

Siebert said organizers also sit down with the students regularly and explain their statements, including tricky things like interest, or "why they have extra pennies in their accounts."

"We try to make it fun," she said.

Sterling launched the program at Fernan last year, and about 125 students were participating by June, Siebert said.

This year, about 100 students have signed up, although the number grows each week, she said.

"Even kids who aren't participating come up with questions," Siebert said.

Sterling also partners with Save for America, a Bellevue, Wash. nonprofit company that encourages children to learn the value of saving at an early age.

Jennifer Forsyth, program manager, said Save for America coordinates similar school-bank programs with 150 banks, and 85,000 children in 750 schools across the country.

It also is the only school savings program approved by the U.S. Department of Education, company officials said, and handled more than $1 million in transactions last year.

With Sterling, and about three other banks in Idaho, Save for America offers a "kid-friendly" Web site and related teaching aids to help students understand their accounts and the value of saving.

After each deposit, the students are asked to ask an adult volunteer to pull up the site and track their accounts. The site also breaks down other information about spending habits and how close the student is to a particular goal.

Other banks in this area have their own school savings programs, but Forsyth said Save for America works with any bank and any school.

It even allows school officials to make a large deposit at one bank. The bank will be able to use Save for America to post the appropriate deposits for every student, even if their savings accounts are held at other banks.

Stephan Avena, Save for America president, said the site also has fun random "Saver Bonuses" which show up after every few deposits to make the process appealing, visit after visit.

Siebert said she likes how Save for America not just manages the student account, but tries to be a part of the school community.

For instance, the company recently donated $125 to the Fernan banking program.

It also helps expose students to the realities of the modern banking world -- the people are more important than the technology.

As the organizers were setting up Tuesday, they found out Fernan's Internet was off-line due to upgrades with a fiberoptic line.

Deposits had to be done "the old way," by counting stacks of coins and using pencils to enter deposits in passbooks.

"Always have a plan B," Avena said.

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