N.J. students are learning financial literacy. These future CEOs say it’s fun — and tasty.

Serendipity would land Jacob Fryer his first job.

“I had two people call out and I was super stressed that afternoon,” said Rui Barroso, owner of Layton Hotel Tavern, remembering a busy Saturday last year.

While customers have continued to file in on weekends throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Layton restaurant, like many across New Jersey, witnessed the health crisis continue to take a toll on people’s willingness to dine out and the number of available employees.

Enter Fryer. The 15-year-old was waiting for a table with his family that Saturday. Hearing that Barroso was short a dishwasher, he stepped in.

“I had just finished running a 5K that day too,” said Fryer, laughing. “This ended up being my first job.”

Sandyston Walpack School

Layton Hotel Tavern owner Rui Barroso shows students from Sandyston-Walpack School how orders are organized and processed at his restaurant. Feb. 1, 2022 in Layton, NJ. Steven Rodas | NJ Advance Media

While a group of students from Sandyston-Walpack School learned about how to run a business Tuesday at the Layton Hotel Tavern, Principal Harold Abraham said Fryer provided perhaps the best lesson of all. “Hard work … He’s only a few years older than some of them too, so that’s really special for them to see,” he said.

The trip was one of several the Sandyston-Walpack School group has taken during the “Bobcat Billionaire$” after school financial literacy program. The program began in September and exposes students in grades 4-6 to the ways finances play a major role in our everyday lives.

Students in the program — 15 total so far — have learned about topics such as budgeting, saving, investing, the difference between debit and credit and “being a healthy skeptic,” school officials said.

Abraham said students at the Sussex County school of about 150 have also met with local business owners like Meg O’Grady of Dirty Dills Pickles and learned how to become entrepreneurs themselves.

New Jersey Department of Education officials said financial literacy has become much more baked into curriculums at public schools since 2020, following new career readiness standards. And for Abraham, these kinds of programs thrive best when hands-on experiences and creative lesson plans are involved.

“I liked learning how to open a bank account, how to write a check, and how to cash and deposit them,” said sixth-grader Nora Deckert, 11, from Layton. “My favorite activity was when we learned to be CEOs. I feel like I learned a lot from this program and know it should help me forever in my career.”

Sandyston Walpack School

A group of 13 students from Sandyston-Walpack School visited Layton Hotel Tavern in Layton, NJ, to learn how to run a business as part of the school’s financial literacy program, called Bobcat Billionaire$. Feb. 1, 2022. Steven Rodas | NJ Advance Media

The eager group of students filed into Layton Hotel Tavern on Tuesday afternoon.

But look closer, the principal said, and you saw future studio owners, digital marketers, and sports trainers. Students have shared many career aspirations with Abraham. The principal said the programming is designed to help them keep exploring those different paths while they’re young.

Once students got settled in, Barroso provided an introduction, including a brief history of the tavern, a summary of COVID’s impact on the business and his role as owner. “No one really lives upstairs, the hotel has just been in the name so long I kept it,” he said early on, in reference to taking over the tavern five years ago.

A tour of the dining room, kitchen, walk-in freezer and basement storage area was to follow. It included lessons on salary, inventory and customer service.

Sandyston-Walpack School students visit Layton Hotel Tavern

A group of 13 students from Sandyston-Walpack School visited Layton Hotel Tavern in Layton, NJ, to learn how to run a business as part of the school’s financial literacy program, called Bobcat Billionaire$. Feb. 1, 2022.

As students took part in the tour, questions abounded: “Do you have to pay everyone?” “What’s that (pointing to a receipt printer)?” “How does stocking work?” “Why do you have cameras?”

Some commentary too: “What’s that smell?” “My dad’s a CEO…” “When do we make pizzas?”

Seemingly everyday tasks prompted the curious group, like when the phone rang and Jacob answered it. Everyone paused to watch the dishwasher-turned-busboy take an order.

Next stop for the kids would be making their own personal pizza pies, handing them to Barroso to bake and sharing in a meal after a hard day’s work.

“This teaches them how to be fiscally responsible,” said Nina Vasallo, mother of 9-year-old Bear Durino, who is in the program. “Bear is always on the receiving end as a customer. This way he learns how to manage a business, which is something they don’t really learn inside the classroom.”

Sandyston-Walpack School students visit Layton Hotel Tavern

A group of 13 students from Sandyston-Walpack School visited Layton Hotel Tavern in Layton, NJ, to learn how to run a business as part of the school’s financial literacy program, called Bobcat Billionaire$. Feb. 1, 2022.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver signed a law in 2019 that mandated the state Board of Education include financial literacy instruction in the curriculum for 6-8th grade students in public schools across the Garden State.

“(The New Jersey Education Association) supported that legislation. An important role of education is to prepare students for success in life,” NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said in a statement. “Financial literacy is a critical life skill and beginning early allows for the opportunity to reinforce and build on that foundation throughout their school career.”

Shaheed Morris, a New Jersey Department of Education spokesman, said younger students are required to partake in these lessons too.

Morris said the New Jersey Student Learning Standards-Career Readiness, Life Literacies and Key Skills, outlined in 2020, states fiscal knowledge, habits, and skills should be part of the lesson plan with “developmentally appropriate expectations” beginning at the K-2 level through Grade 12.

“The standards are designed in a way to introduce students to these critical concepts within specific grade bands to ensure students are prepared for postsecondary success and the attainment of personal financial wellness,” Morris said.

While financial literacy was part of the education standards in previous iterations, it became, “much more robust” in 2020 by featuring, “a much more comprehensive set of expectations in the elementary and middle school grade bands,” he added.

Janet Bamford, chief public affairs officer for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said the standards are critical for students’ futures.

“Understanding these (personal financial literacy) concepts allows students to make informed decisions about their personal finance and is a key skill that can help them build fulfilling, financially secure and successful lives,” Bamford said.

Sam Mahoney and Tori Hill, Sandyston-Walpack students would agree — as long as fun is involved.

“I enjoy hands-on projects and learning through experience,” said 12-year-old Hull, who wants to pursue digital marketing.

Mahoney, 12, who enjoys soccer, lacrosse and baseball in his off time, looks most fondly on his time organizing a school store.

“As a team we bought a variety of items for the store and sold them. I thought this was great because it showed us how to be an entrepreneur and run our own business,” he said.

Sandyston Walpack School

Sam Mahoney, 12, spreads tomato sauce on his own pizza pie at Layton Hotel Tavern. Mahoney was one of 13 students from Sandyston-Walpack School who visited the restaurant to learn how to run a business as part of the school’s financial literacy program, called Bobcat Billionaire$. Feb. 1, 2022 in Layton. Steven Rodas | NJ Advance Media

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Steven Rodas may be reached at srodas@njadvancemedia.com. follow him @stevenrodasnj.

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