Mike koozmin/The S.f. ExaminerStudents from the Chinese Education Center visited a Citibank branch to practice making deposits into their Kindergarten to College savings accounts.

Unique program helps SF kindergarteners learn the value of college savings

The 4,400 kindergarteners enrolled in San Francisco public schools have already started saving for college.

Upon graduation in 2027, each student enrolled in kindergarten this year will have started their path to college with a city-funded $50 college savings account. An additional $50 will have been placed in the account if the student was enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program, and any money their families added will have been matched up to $100 by The City.

The money is part of Kindergarten to College, a first-of-its-kind program that launched in San Francisco in 2010 to encourage students to pursue higher education. And this school year, visits to banks were added to teach students how to deposit money themselves.

“The sooner you can get into a savings pattern, the better,” said Vicki Joseph, the Northern California regional director for community development at Citi, the banking corporation that partnered with San Francisco's Office of Financial Empowerment to provide students with college savings accounts.

A quarter of San Francisco's public elementary schools participated in the program when it launched in 2010. That number doubled each year until the 2012-13 school year, when every school set up kindergarten students with an account.

“There are studies that say that students with a savings account in their name are seven times more likely to go to college,” Joseph said. “It really doesn't matter how much they're [saving], it's just getting into the habit of doing it.”

The practice of saving for college was emphasized Tuesday during the program's first field trip, in which students at the Chinese Education Center Elementary School visited a Citibank branch at Grant and Jackson streets in Chinatown.

More than two dozen kindergarten and first- and second-grade students — all of whom speak little to no English and arrived in the U.S. within the past year — deposited cash into Citibank college savings accounts. Some of their accounts were opened as recently as this week.

“All of them are new immigrants. Some parents might be looking for jobs still, so they're coming here with very little means,” said Mimi Leung, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at the school. “For them, having food and a roof over their head is … an immediate need. To save $100 here and there, it's difficult.”

In addition to learning that saving for college pays off, students toured different parts of the bank, such as personal banking, the teller stations and ATMs, “so they have a little bit [of an] idea of what a bank does,” said Daniel Yee, the branch manager.

Before the tour, Yee asked the students, in Cantonese, what they want to save for in the future. Most said a car or gum, but Yee was surprised to hear a girl announce that she wanted to save for college.

“A lot of kids at this age only think about toys or games or candy. College right now is so far away from them,” Yee said. “It was a good thing to hear at least one student say that.”

Billy Cai, 7, is in first grade at the Chinese Education Center. He moved to San Francisco from China in September, and brought $25 to deposit in his college savings account Tuesday. With the initial $50 deposit and matching funds from The City, that means his account already has at least $100 with more than 10 years to go before college.

“I'm saving the money to prepare for university or college,” Billy said in Cantonese, though he added that he actually wants to buy an airplane.

To date, more than 18,000 students have college savings accounts through Kindergarten to College, said Carol Lei, the program manager. Families have deposited $822,000, of which $158,000 has been matched by The City, she said.

Overall, San Francisco has contributed more than $1 million to the accounts since 2010, which includes initial deposits and matching funds, Lei said.

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