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Imagine: Kids learn about real world in their MicroSociety

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of October 20, 2011)
Photo of 2nd-graders Bella Miner and Kyla Brunk work on Extreme Comics business.

Every school day around 2:30 in the afternoon students at Imagine South Vero, a pre-K through 8th-grade charter school founded in 2008, stop being kids and become business owners, employees, government officials, postmen, peacekeepers and consumers. 

That includes earning and spending money they designed – money that buys real goods and services.

The school’s so-called MicroSociety is not a superficial game. It’s a complex social structure that mirrors the larger society in great detail and teaches kids essential skills that teachers and parents believe will serve them well as they grow up and enter the larger world of economic effort and reward.

It’s also big fun.

“The microsociety was the main reason my daughter wanted to go to Imagine,” says Kimberly Kiethahn, an island resident and recent candidate for Indian River County School Board. “It is what excited her most about the school.”

Kiethahn’s daughter Abigail, an eighth-grader, works as a microsociety banker, using Excel spread sheets to keep track of hundreds of student accounts, automatic payroll deposits and business loans.

“She likes it because everyone has to come to the bank to cash their paycheck or take out money and she gets to interact with the whole school,” says Kiethahn.

“There are more than 40 businesses,” says Linda Sullivan who coordinates the microsociety program for the school’s 821 students.

“There is Gamestop, where kids can go to play board games, Pamper Me Perfect, where they get their nails done or have a massage. We have a jewelry store where the kids make jewelry, a crochet shop, Tie-Dye City and many others.”

Sullivan says Jay’s Wallets, which sells custom-made duct-tape wallets, is one of the most popular businesses.

“We sell thousands of dollars worth of wallets each month,” says owner James Beneduci, a sixth-grader who started the business when he was in third grade.

“He is a smart businessman,” says Sullivan. “As soon as the money came out, he realized everyone would need something to carry it in.”

Wallets sell for $20 and $25 and James said students buy them as gifts for friends and relatives as well as for personal use.

Seventh-grader Jordan Petrulak is James’s bookkeeper, recording all the money that comes in as well as outlays for material and salaries for the business’s 18 employees.

“I have learned a lot of math,” she says with a smile. “I am in advanced mathematics but I don’t think I have ever had to do as much math as I do here in my life.”

Vero Beach Mayor Jay Kramer’s sixth-grade son Anthony is one of James’s employees.

“He is having fun with the job,” says Kramer, who selected the school for his son in part because of the microsociety. “Anything that keeps kids interested in school and learning is great.”

Zoo Tycoon, another business created at Imagine by a third-grader that’s been going strong for three years, has had a national impact.

“The business owner recruited Petco as a partner,” says Sullivan. “Each week, they get a pet from Petco and the student learns all about the animal and how to take care of it.

“Petco was so impressed with this student’s idea, they became a national sponsor of microsociety. Now, anyone attending a micro near a Petco store can have that partnership as well.”

The idea of a miniature society for school children, at once imaginary and real, in which they learn adult skills and enjoy grown-up rewards for their labor, originated with first-year Brooklyn, NY school teacher George Richmond in 1967.

Faced with a classroom full of bored, unresponsive 5th graders seemingly impervious to learning, Richmond came up with the concept of monetizing knowledge-based activities such as studying and taking tests, allowing students to earn tangible rewards by doing well in school.

The ad-hoc program successfully engaged Richmond’s at-risk students in reading, writing and arithmetic, and he went on to earn a doctorate at Harvard. His thesis about the experiment, “The Microsociety School: A Real World in Miniature,” was later published by Harper & Row.

Richmond and his wife Carolynn eventually developed a formal curriculum and training program now licensed to more than 250 schools in the United States.

In “The Best Schools” (2006), author Thomas Armstrong calls MicroSociety one of the two best educational programs for elementary schools in the nation because of its whole-child approach to learning.

“The national organization gave us three years of training under contract, which we recently completed,” says Sullivan. “They taught the teachers and the teachers taught the kids.

“The children have their regular core curriculum all day, just like in district schools. Then at the end of the day, it is micro time for 35 or 40 minutes.

“The school transforms into this amazing society. Everybody has a job. They report to work. They earn a salary. Everything you need in a real society is here. The neatest thing is that it is run by the children. The kids come up with businesses. They write business plans and submit them. If the businesses are approved, they fill out loan applications to get the money to open the business.”

Government officials are elected and civil servants selected by a committee of students from pool of applicants.

Students typically earn $8 a day, the minimum wage established by their government, and have one day off each week in which to shop and spend their money.

The colorful script used in the micro society features manatees, which are the school mascot, and comes in $1, $5, $10 and $20-dollar denominations. Students recently voted to introduce $100 bills.

How real is this society?

Real enough to have developed its own criminals.

“There was a student whose parents had a good copy machine who counterfeited some money,” says Sullivan. “The student was caught and had to go before the court to be punished, which involved paying a fine and doing community service.”

The microsociety has 15 laws, including prohibitions against yelling and shoving and buying or selling outside of microsociety hours.

Loitering and G-walking, or cutting across grassy areas, are also prohibited.

There are occasional personnel problems, too.

At Gamestop, manager Kylee Metheny, a sixth-grader, is responsible for overseeing a room full of employees who host games and play them with customers who pay $5 to play two games.

“I have to make sure all the employees are respectful to our customers and do their jobs,” Kylee says. “They do very well most of the time. They are very friendly and interactive with our customers.”

When a problem does arise, Kylee says she and Gamestop owner, fellow sixth-grader Nicole Semko, don’t confront students publically.

“We don’t like to call people out, so when we need to talk to someone we speak to them privately.”

Kylee says she thinks managing a business in the microsociety will help later in life.

“When I go to apply for a job, I will already have some good experience,” she says.

When micro time rolls around at the end of the day, the enthusiasm of students rushing off to their jobs or favorite shop is unmistakable but the crowded sidewalks flow smoothly, watched over by peacekeepers like Lakea Blackman, who says she issues a fair number of tickets each week to keep students in line.

Lakea doesn’t give the students warnings before issuing a ticket. “They already know they aren’t supposed to loiter,” she says.

The fractious middle-schoolers are also known to be scofflaws when it comes to walking on the grass. According to Sullivan, the older students have been laughing off the $5 fine and continuing to G-walk at will.

In response, the student government plans to raise the fine for G-walking to make it sting a little more in hope of compelling better compliance.

In another example of microsociety realism, this response anticipates the City of Vero Beach’s proposed answer to parking scofflaws on Ocean Drive.

Right now, street parking in the island business district is free for two hours; those who overstay are hit with a $10 fine.
Vero Police Chief Donald Dappen believes the fine is too low to deter people from parking all day and has proposed doubling it to $20 to increase compliance with the macro-society’s rules.