JEFFERSON — When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

When life gives you a pandemic and mandates online schooling, stay home and make the most of distance learning.

That’s just what Jefferson Middle School students did as they explored a free trial of an online personal finance challenge through their eighth-grade social studies classes this spring.

And a number of the local participants in the challenge came out in the top 10 percent of scorers nationwide.

Erich Utrie, eighth-grade social studies teacher at Jefferson Middle School, said that his students recently completed the National Budgeting Challenge as part of their personal finance unit.

Personal Finance Lab, which is normally a paid educational service, offered the online program as a free trial during the pandemic.

Utrie said he saw this as a great opportunity for his students during this time of online learning.

“As schools across the nation have had to switch to distance learning, there was a big opening up of resources and lesson plans by a lot of companies and organizations,” Utrie said.

The scenario Personal Finance Lab set up asked middle- and high-schoolers to create their own budgets as if they were a college student living on their own and to manage those budgets over the course of a “virtual year.”

Students had to decide what type of housing they could afford and manage monthly expenses including food, transportation, the cost of schooling and more.

Participants had checking and savings accounts and could also access a credit line.

The simulation brought up a lot of key issues in personal finance, like when it makes sense to take on personal debt.

Students were rewarded for keeping their expenses low and living within their budget.

Utrie said he liked how the program helped students quantify what was a real “need,” as opposed to just a “want.”

On the other hand, he said, in a real-life, non-COVID-19 situation, college students actually are going to want to invest in a few extras, like going out to eat with friends or seeing a movie — even if their finances are tight.

The Jefferson Middle School teacher said he was extremely impressed with how his students did in the nationwide challenge.

Nationwide, 2,331 high school and middle school students participated in the online budgeting challenge, most of them high-schoolers, judging by the prefixes on the usernames, Utrie said.

Jefferson Middle School had 13 students finish in the top 10 percent.

The top performer from Jefferson was Haden Dempsey, who finished 35th nationwide, in the top 1.5 percent of scorers overall.

The next-best score from Jefferson came from Kiana Mitchell, who placed 63rd in the nation, putting her in the top 2.7 percent of scorers.

{div}Other top-placing Jefferson students included Rebecca Wolfe (77th), Makaylla Wiedenfeld (80th), Claudia Maze (88th), Joey Pupanek (89th), Libby Krause (102nd), John Kraus (113th), Timothy Vang (114th), Alivia Nelson (142nd), Drew Peterson (158th), Emily Boucher (203rd) and Mitchel Langholff (207th).{/div}

Even those who did not score in the top levels gained from the challenge as they grew familiar with the process and the obstacles to balancing a budget and the kind of decisions they’d be facing as independent adults.

Utrie commended all of the participants’ achievement, saying that as this was the first time his students had participated in an online challenge of this nature, he did not expect them to perform so well.

“I didn’t even realize the company would send me the results of all of the students and how they ranked nationwide,” Utrie said. “It was just something different to try under these conditions.”

Utrie said that he was really happy with the number of Jefferson students who fully participated in the challenge.

Of course, the school would love to see everyone participate in everything, but with students learning at home in varied situations — some of whom might have internet connectivity issues or child-care responsibilities in the absence of parents who are still working — local students’ performance was outstanding, he said.

Overall, studying personal finance during a pandemic and a recession unprecedented in these young people’s lives has lent a real immediacy to the subject, Utrie said.

Ordinarily, most young students are blissfully unaware of the budgeting processes their own parents are using to accommodate ongoing expenses and to plan for the future. But this pandemic has thrown a light on how many families are living paycheck-to-paycheck, without a real “emergency fund” to fall back on.

“There are things you can predict, and things you can’t predict,” Utrie said. “Last year, no one could have predicted this is where we’d be this year.”

Just as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, fundamentally changed many aspects of American life, such as airline travel, Utrie said he thinks the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic will bring many more changes in people’s lives.

“This situation, with the virus and the resulting unemployment, brings up new questions in terms of business and government response, and it makes us rethink our personal finances, underlining the importance of budgeting for the unknown,” the teacher said.

“A good question we get from students is ‘Why do we need to know this?’” Utrie said. “That’s a driving force to everything I do — to connect their learning to real life.”

Studying personal finance, especially at a time when this unprecedented situation is putting everyone’s finances in the spotlight, gives students an anchor when it comes to financial planning, dealing with the unknown and making the best choices possible with the information at hand.

“I think all of our students are going to be able to tap into why this is important,” Utrie said.

Meanwhile, teaching wholly online has brought its own lessons for Utrie and other educators, underscoring the need for providing students with timely and thorough feedback.

While online learning offers some unique opportunities, the most effective learning is done face-to-face, where immediate interaction is possible, and Utrie said, he is looking forward to getting back to traditional schooling (hopefully) in the fall.

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