The LifeSmarts program is true to its name.
Students in grades nine through 12 learn tidbits of information in five different categories related to consumer affairs – personal finance, consumer rights and responsibilities, health and safety, technology and the environment – that can help them when they want to do things like set up a retirement account or fix a computer.
In other words, students don't gain book smarts or street smarts from the program run by the National Consumers League – they learn life smarts.
But the Dallas High School team might be more prepared than most young people to take on those tasks – the team recently won first place in the state LifeSmarts competition and will compete in nationals for the third time.
Five team members – Gates Palissery, Amber Habib, Sara Hudak, Samuel Reinert and team captain Decklan Cerza – will attend the national competition April 21-24 in Philadelphia.
Kevin West, LifeSmarts team coach, said it's "very exciting" to have the team represent Pennsylvania at the national event in their home state.
"Two years ago we went to nationals in Miami, Florida," he said. In 2010, the team placed 10th out of 32 teams across the nation. The team also traveled to Orlando, Fla. in 2003 and placed third in the country.
West said the team won at the states this year without being able to size up the competition. Although usually held in Harrisburg through the state Office of the Attorney General Bureau of Consumer Protection, this year's state competition was held online this year due to lack of funds for the program, West said.
The state competition involves nine of the top-scoring teams from across the state. The students couldn't see who their competitors were, but managed to still finish on top.
West quizzes the students with questions that have been previously asked, but students know the difference between memorizing the questions and learning the principles behind them.
"There are questions that are similar, like with the cooling off rule in which you can cancel purchases three days after making them if you were under emotional distress," said Palissery, 17, of Dallas. "They'll ask you how many days do you have to cancel the purchase, what is the cooling off rule, and others. You have to know the material."
Palissery said she was roped into the group through West, who was her homeroom teacher a few years ago. She said the information is practical – she has a job now and has a better understanding of paying taxes.
"It's things I'll remember for the rest of my life," she said. "It's useful."
Cerza, 16, of Dallas, said LifeSmarts is fun because of its competitive aspect.
"I do Science Olympiad, too," he said. "I like competing when it comes to academics."
Cerza said the knowledge he's gained from LifeSmarts is information used in real life, not just something he read in a textbook.
"My parents told me they didn't even know some of the things (I've learned)," he said.
Though there are about 20 people in the LifeSmarts club, five are weeded out through in-house competitions to see who will perform at the state level.
This year's group is the youngest in recent memory, said West, with most being freshmen or sophomores.
The only state competition veteran is Sara Hudak, 15, of Dallas, who advanced to the final group in her freshman year. She said the experience was "terrifying," but she admits her LifeSmarts skills are what got her to that point.
"I was nervous last year because the seniors were so great, but I guess I'm pretty good at it, too," she said. "I'm really proud to be a part of a group that made it this far."
During their Philadelphia trip, the students will also tour the city and attend various shows, including "Freedom Rising" at the National Constitution Center.