Friday, September 26, 2003

Six Flags Literacy Program Huge Success; Children's Financial Management Program Not So Much

Six Flags's participation in the Read to Succeed program has garnered the massive park chain plaudits from enthusiasts, parents, and school administrators alike. The program provides kids with park tickets in connection with how much they read and nearly 400,000 children have taken part.

Somewhat overlooked in the press coverage of the Read to Succeed program has been Six Flags's other children's education program, "Borrow and Spend to Make More Money." This program, instituted just a year after Premier Parks took over the Six Flags chain, gave junior and senior high school students a chance to follow the chain's planning and expansion efforts throughout much of the 1990s, and has taught thousands how to manage their money just like a major entertainment business. Students were treated to visits to corporate headquarters, visits from Six Flags accountants, and detailed training about how they could borrow and spend massive amounts of money in an effort to become wealthy and popular.

The program, unfortunately, has not been considered a success. "We had fifteen students in that program," says Leonard Brock, principal of Madison Junior High in the Oklahoma City suburbs, a pilot school for the program. "And thirteen of them had to file for bankruptcy before graduation from high school. The other two only managed to avoid that because they had rich parents."

The problem: all of the kids ran up thousands of dollars on their credit cards, purchasing cars, entertainment systems, DVDs, and vacations. "I just figured that's what Six Flags was doing," says Beth Kerr, one of the bankrupt youngsters. "They kept telling us [in the lectures by visiting Six Flags accountants] about how 'You've gotta spend money to make money!' and how they were spending hundreds of millions of borrowed dollars on rides so that they could make money in the future...but now that I think about it, they were always a little vague about how they'd be making money in the future. Something about funnel cakes, I think."

"They were really very convincing," said Kerr's ninth-grade home economics teacher, Nancy Poe. "They said you could take an ugly and unpopular park -- like, say, Geauga Lake or Jazzland -- and put piles and piles of money into it and you'd make it back in a heartbeat, somehow. And they said you could take an ugly and unpopular person -- like Beth -- and if she spent a lot of money on unnecessary and flashy stuff, she'd make a bunch of money. And become popular, too." Poe walked away, shaking her head.

Neither result has occurred for the young Ms. Kerr. In addition to her bankruptcy filing and subsequent reposession of her Hummer, HDTV-ready 32-inch television, and Versace wardrobe, Kerr remains unpopular outside her circle of French Club friends.