Mr. Peng: The Solo Act

The Personal Finance elective taught by Peng has become one of the most sought-after courses at Stuyvesant, leading to students’ desire for an expansion of the course.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cover Image
By Afra Mahmud

Stuyvesant’s Personal Finance elective was just implemented this school year, yet in the short time since the course was vitalized, its popularity has risen to the extent that students are requesting to audit the class. This semester, 67 seniors (nearly double the amount of seats available) requested it as their number one choice elective. However, the willingness of these students to sit on the floor in order to attend the class becomes less perplexing upon closer investigation. Advocates of the course have cited the in-depth curriculum and hands-on projects as evidence for accrediting Personal Finance among the most relevant classes available at Stuyvesant.

The Personal Finance elective is taught by mathematics teacher David Peng (’06), a Stuyvesant alum all too familiar with the inadequate availability of financial literacy courses at Stuyvesant. Yet in the nine years Peng has gone from a student to teacher at Stuyvesant, similar frustrations regarding the lack of curriculum on necessary skills persist. “The school doesn’t really prepare anyone for finance. [Stuyvesant] prepares students really well for math—just the analytical parts, but in terms of actually understanding markets, there aren’t any courses,” Peng said. “When I wanted to buy a house, I had to teach myself, do my own research [...] There is a lot of nuance for things like even finding an apartment, finding a mortgage, applying for credit cards. These are things that schools don’t really teach well enough or don’t prepare students for.”

Peng’s background in and personal experience with application of finance compelled him to design the course. “I created this course because I believe financial literacy is a fundamental course that needs to be taught well before you start working and making money,” Peng said. “The first source was during my house-hunting phase a few years ago. The whole process of budgeting, saving for a down payment, applying for mortgages, and understanding taxes was fascinating to me, but I can see how it can be very overwhelming or confusing to others.”

Peng shares that though his personal experience with the applications of finance pushed him to design the course, a Spectator article titled “Calculus Before Checkbooks?” by Anisha Singhal was what caused him to present the idea to the administration. “Before the article was published, I had already planned out what I wanted to teach in the course and was ready to pitch the idea to former Principal Eric Contreras. However, when the pandemic hit and caused many electives to be cut, I felt it was inappropriate to introduce a new elective at the time,” Peng said. “The week that Spectator Opinions piece came out, I decided to meet with Principal Seung Yu and [Assistant Principal of Math and Computer Science Eric Smith] to discuss introducing this course for the fall semester. They were both fully supportive of the idea and wanted to proceed with creating the course.”

The material covered in Peng’s 12-unit course includes checking, savings, credit, student loans, and the college financial aid process. He originally planned for Personal Finance to be a full year course but condensed it to just one semester so more students could take the class. The purpose of the course is to allow students to apply these skills in their own lives. “Going into this class, there were many words being thrown around like mortgage, loans, credit score, and debt, terms that we’ve all heard in our lives, but we don’t know how they truly work. But luckily, this class will teach you everything you need to know to understand said terms,” senior Fahim Khan said.

Senior Arian Rahman also added how the class has aided him in the college application process. “It’s also incredibly helpful if you’re a senior applying to college. The only reason I was able to understand any of the terms in my financial aid letter was because of Personal Finance,” he said. “The class is a must-take and is honestly the most applicable class at Stuyvesant. I’d say that it should be a mandatory class for everyone, like Health.”

Unlike a simple math course, Peng aims for the class to be application-based. He takes much of his course material from Next Gen Personal Finance, a non-profit organization looking to implement personal finance into the curriculum of all American schools. “I think the big thing about class is that there are a lot of hands-on activities because personal finance is hands-on. You can’t really experience any of the things we experience in theory until we actually get to practice it,” Peng said.

The projects are tailored to the students’ experiences. For instance, after college acceptances, seniors created personal budgets for college expenses based on the financial aid forms they received from their respective colleges.

“I think this should be a requirement for all students because it better prepares them for financial decisions. I have learned so much from this class, and the knowledge I have gained will benefit me my entire life,” senior Khujista Umama said.

Numerous students have expressed their appreciation for the class. “Amazing class, 10/10 would recommend. I learned a lot by going here, and it is a life-changing experience. I feel less stressed about money now,” senior Yamin Rahma said. In addition, a survey conducted by The Spectator found that 100 percent of Personal Finance students would recommend the class to a friend.

Because the class only has one section of students, students who could not enroll in the class have been trying to audit it. “My request to take the class was not accepted, but I sit in on the classes when I can to absorb some of the essential information Mr. Peng is teaching,” senior Sarah Cheyney recounted.

Peng also noted that over the years, Stuyvesant has maintained continuity in limiting its finance courses to standalone electives. Though decentralized electives are not uncommon at Stuyvesant, dependency on individual teachers has hindered the longevity of Stuyvesant’s finance courses in the past. “Though Stuy[vesant] is a STEM school, not all students will land a career in STEM. From my experience, some of my peers ended up in business-related fields, such as finance, entrepreneurship, marketing, accounting, and consulting,” Peng said. “Right now, there aren’t any elective courses that encourage students to explore business-related topics. The last business elective was probably [former social studies teacher] George Kennedy’s Wall Street course, which disappeared once he retired in 2016.”

Moving forward, Peng believes that the course should be accessible to more students, both at Stuyvesant and beyond. “The big picture would be to make this a required class for everyone. A lot of high schools do make it a required class. Some make it an elective, like what we are doing here. I think it is beneficial if every student has access to it,” Peng said.