Four high school students wearing bright blue shirts that read “Cats Bank” counted and stacked $5 bills, checked for counterfeit $20 bills, opened bank accounts and managed deposits and withdrawals — just like a real bank.

Other students stopped by to sign disclosure statements at the student-run bank at the high school’s Conway Area Career Center and open an account.

“I just thought a bank was kind of like a wallet,” said senior Parker Rice, who was working as a teller. “But there’s a lot more going on.”

For the first time, students who want to learn about finance and banking have the chance to work inside a bank that handles actual currency, teacher Alyce Hardee said. The banking program previously used fake money, but Hardee got permission from the Central Office to use cash this school year, she said.

She also pioneered a link between Centennial Bank and her class that allows students to get hands-on learning through running their own bank, Hardee said. She called Centennial Bank a “community partner.”

On Tuesday, Rice is among the students working the counter at Cats Bank. About 23 students are in the banking and finance class, and students rotate working in the bank as part of their class assignment, teacher Alyce Hardee said. The bank, which opened for the first time using real money Oct. 30, is open during the three lunch periods during the school day.

Rice, who wants to go to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville for a finance degree, said he’s learned about everything from bank robberies to signing up for banking accounts. So far, 15 students have signed up to put money into Cats Bank. Even on a snowy Tuesday, students were busily coming and going.

Hardee said the goal of Cats Bank is to teach students how to save, how to manage money, how to invest money. Students working in the bank are trained to set up accounts, check people’s identification, take photographs of customers and explain the bank service. Students assigned as managers, tellers and account representatives fill out paperwork, proof each other, double check the amounts coming in and out of the bank and make sure the surveillance system is working. Customers are finger printed, too.

Paperwork is audited, students double check each other and tellers complete reports. Duties are rotated through, Hardee said.

“This is a cash only bank at this time,” Hardee wrote in a news release on the bank. “All money will be returned to students and accounts cleared in May before school ends.”

The bank gives students an overview of “main concepts of our banks and our financial system,” Hardee said in her release.

To cheer up the small room, Hardee put up a festive, shiny banner along the counter’s edge. She said she tries to bring decorations, like what a bank might do, for holidays. Students freely handed out lollipops to customers.

“We’ve tried to make it just like a real bank,” Hardee said.

Going to the bank

Several students use Cats Bank all the time, Hardee said.

Students, like senior Tara Holland, looking for a place to stick their cash find the bank convenient, even though the student bank can’t do savings accounts that accrue interest yet, Hardee said. Holland said she doesn’t have a car of her own so using the school bank helps her out.

“I was like that sounds like a good idea,” Holland said.

Holland is saving for spending money during an orchestra trip April. She already has her trip covered, she said, but she’s saving for extra money. Cats Bank lets her put in money an account at school, which helps her save and is more accessible than an account at a normal bank, she said.

At Cats Bank, students can open accounts with $5 and only their IDs. They don’t need parent signatures like they do at banks outside the school, Hardee said.

Preparing for
the ‘Real World’

The key is to prepare students for what to expect once they graduate and are faced with solicitations from credit cards, Hardee said. She worried students who don’t understand financing will ruin their credit scores.

“I’ve been surprised with how people ruing their credit and how easy it was to do it,” said Kyler Sanson, a junior who was the account representative Tuesday.

The banking program fits into the goals of the career center to give kids “real-life experience,” said Jason Lawrence, career center supervisor.

“We’re trying to get kids prepared for a job,” he said.

But not all students signed up for Hardee’s class to run a bank, they said. They wanted to know how finances work.

Ian McClendon, who was working as a teller, said he wanted a basic understanding of banking. He wants to learn “life lessons you need to know before you get thrown out there,” he said.

Armani Famous, one of two managers of the bank, said she took the class because she thought she needed help to navigate the weak economy left after the recession, she said. Famous wants to be a pharmacist.

“I thought it would broaden my horizons as a person and give me life skills that are essential in today’s time,” Famous said. “It’s a good life-skill class.”

Famous said using real money and running an actual bank is good for her and other students.

“It’s a great learning experience for students, and it’s a great building experience for customers,” Famous said.