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SAN DIEGO, CA -- An innovative educational program offered by newspapers and sponsored by the real estate and credit industry is providing information that really hits home.

Some 32,000 teachers in 42 school districts in the San Diego-Riverside-Imperial County area in Southern California have received "HomeWords," Newspapers in Education (NIE) curriculum that teaches the next generation of home owners -- high school students -- about home ownership while strengthening their reading and writing skills.

NIE is a consortium of publishers created to develop educational programs using newspapers as educational tools. Newspapers, in turn, partner with schools and local groups to disseminate the curricula, including algebraic word problem studies based on sports news and statistics, social studies that use national and world news stories and stock market games that rely upon business and financial news.

Using newspapers in education makes sense. News is, after all, the first draft of history.

Home ownership also is a natural for NIE. Buying a home is the largest, most emotionally trying transaction most consumers will ever complete. Achieving what many consider the centerpiece of the American Dream requires extensive reading, writing, mathematical and analytical skills to master the credit, savings, finance, cost and affordability issues that come with it.

"We fail to teach kids financial responsibility in terms of applying math skills to real life. We expect good things out of this program," said Kim Holm, head of the San Diego's Union-Tribune's NIE program.

Also, while HomeWords wasn't specifically designed to teach negotiation skills often necessary along the path to home ownership, the program should give students a feel for the skill -- perhaps inadvertently -- when they complete expository and persuasive writing assignments included in the program.

HomeWords was originally developed by the Los Angeles Times for the City of Angels' high schools. The Union-Tribune version is sponsored by the San Diego Association of Realtors and California Coast Credit Union. The regional association also plans to encourage support from the state association, the California Association of Realtors, for a roll out throughout more of the Golden State.

"The whole thing is based on the nuts and bolts of home ownership. Teachers get newspapers and a study guide with predesignated exercises based on accredited curriculum," said Pamela Thorsch, the association's government affairs director who helped set up the San Diego program.

Students gather information by reading newspaper real estate articles and by attending lectures presented in class by area real estate agents and other realty professionals. They also work through lessons directed by teachers using the study guide.

The guide offers lessons in determining the difference between wants and needs, learning the cost of homes, renting-vs-buying, attached-vs-detached homes, old-vs-new homes, home features, making a house a home, the roles of homes in literature, location issues, NIMBYism (Not-In-My-Back-Yard), affordability, credit, mortgages, real estate agent roles, calculating square footage and other issues.

The comprehensive lesson plan culminates in an optional essay contest for students to explain why they would like to own a home, what challenges they foresee in reaching that goal and what steps they will need to take to achieve their dream. Essay content is supported by what students learn from HomeWords. There's a $1,000 grand prize scholarship and two $500 runners-up scholarships.

Studies reveal home ownership success is another pay off for better educated home buyers.

Home owners who received home ownership and mortgage counseling have an average 19 percent lower 90-day mortgage payment delinquency rate than those who don't receive counseling, according to a Freddie Mac study, "A Little Knowledge Is a Good Thing: Empirical Evidence of the Effectiveness of Pre-Purchase Homeownership Counseling".

Consumer education and counseling has been a cornerstone of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America's (MBAA) legislative agenda. MBAA created a "Stop Mortgage Fraud" Web site to educate consumers about the warning signs of predatory lending and other mortgage issues.

To help college students avoid the school of hard knocks, the state of California last year enacted "The Student Financial Responsibility Act," a law designed to institute on-campus credit card lessons before students get into financial trouble that could later reduce their chances of becoming a home owner.

Some say that law may be too little too late.

"Students should get this in junior high school and high school, as well as college. The reason that so many adults don't know how to manage their finances is for the simple reason that they were never taught," says Eric Tyson, a personal finance advisor and author of personal investment and finance "Dummies" guides.

Indeed, after one semester of personal finance instruction, including everything from borrowing money to estate planning, all of the seniors at Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson High Shool's Academy of Finance passed the Americans for Consumer Education and Competition's (ACEC) 2001 Personal Financial Quiz, according to Susan Molinari, ACEC's national chairwoman.

It wouldn't hurt for home ownership education or at least its finanical aspects to be mandatory middle or high school curriculum in California where home prices are among the highest in the nation. NIE officials say, however, it's not always easy to get budget-strapped teachers to go beyond standard curricula.

"Based on real life experiences and what kids are seeing in the newsaper and what parents and teachers are addressing, we want to give kids a reality check, especially with our housing crisis," said Thorsch.

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