Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009 | The minimum wage has dropped. New citizens keep arriving in need of work. And the government is still struggling to craft a budget halfway into the year. Politicians chalk up their difficulties to one crucial thing.

“All that math,” said Vechea Lor, a 4th grader who was elected vice president at Joyner Elementary School this fall. “That was a little bit hard.”

Joyner is one of only four schools in California where students operate their own society during school hours, through a national program called MicroSociety that allows students to run their own government, open their own businesses, and spend their own currency in a microcosm of the world outside or a world of their own making. It is meant to link schoolwork to real world challenges and to empower students to pursue their own ideas.

Proponents of such programs nationwide say they have dwindled in the era of No Child Left Behind. Tighter restrictions on school schedules and pressure to boost test scores made it difficult to justify spending class time on what some educators saw as merely a fun experiment, even though some studies point to increased math and reading scores and better attendance in schools with the program.

Joyner is defying the naysayers. The magnet school, newly built during the last facilities bond, opened a year and a half ago and has already drawn nearly a hundred students from outside its City Heights neighborhood, pulling students from as far as Clairemont and La Mesa.

Its hope is that engaging kids in the miniature world will show them the value of reading, writing, arithmetic and other subjects, boost school attendance and student confidence and translate into higher achievement at Joyner, where the vast majority of students come from low-income families and three-quarters are learning English. Attendance has already grown since last year and now exceeds 96.4 percent.

“You always hear parents and students saying, ‘When am I going to use percentages? What is this for?’” said Principal Gilbert Gutierrez. “At our school they never say that.”

Three times a week Joyner students snap into that parallel world for an hour. Elected officials gather and discuss taxes and wages. Bank tellers in clip-on ties greet customers. Kindergarteners slip on postal uniforms and deliver mail, collect recycling or track electricity use by sticking metallic stars onto paper “meters” posted at each classroom where the lights and computers are on. Attorneys argue cases in court.

They seem startlingly adult as they toss around vocabulary such as “bailiff” and “docket” in the courtroom or “deposit” and “accounts” at the bank. Their world, still developing, is remarkable in its complexity. Their dollars can buy real things: plants from the garden, arts and crafts supplies, tickets to student plays, and time in the computer lab. And their decisions can actually change how things work within the orange stucco walls of their school.

“It’s really hard to do this job,” said school President Wensdy Lopez, a 5th grader, as she pushed her long curly hair back from her face. Advisers scurried back and forth to her desk with questions and data. “We have many troubles and the people come and tell me about their problems.” Yet Lopez said the program is fun.

Third grader Daniel Khuu manages the distribution center that delivers pencils, binders and even rented laptops to other businesses and agencies. On a recent Friday, his workers filed in and put on their yellow T-shirts before looking up orders in the printed catalog they designed and issued to classmates, assembling the supplies and shuttling them out to the businesses. Some customers pay by credit until they get their business loans, Khuu explained, and others pay up front. Records of their payments go into a bin marked “Accounts Payable.”

He peered over the shoulder of a girl who enters the numbers of each item ordered in a spreadsheet, tracking the inventory so that Khuu knows when to order more supplies. A teacher, Edna Mikulanis, reminded Khuu that payday was coming up and he needed to check how much cash he had on hand. He shook his head and touched his temples, muttering that he would take the budget home and review it.

Teachers do not run the microsociety. They guide and counsel. They bring in outside experts — a real bank manager or a real attorney — to mentor the kids and give them some structure. But the decisions are largely left to the kids.

“I felt like last year I did step in too much with my manager,” said Linnea Miller, a 2nd grade teacher who helps students run a computer cafe called Tech Time. “I got hung up on trying to keep our business afloat. I had to realize that we’d love to have a successful business — but in the end it’s about the learning process. The successes and failures that come with the business.”

Each year in the microsociety begins with elections for classroom representatives, a vice president and a president. The elected officials craft or amend a school constitution that sets out the laws and run miniature agencies: an unemployment center, a court system, even a fire and safety marshal. They collect taxes and are paid out of those taxes in their own currency — MicroBucks — with a Joyner Jaguar printed on each bill.

Meanwhile in the private sector, teachers advertise for management and interview students for the spots. Would-be managers in the upper grades have to meet criteria for grades, attendance and citizenship and take a class — MicroManagement — during recess or after school to learn the basics of running businesses like the plant nursery, the gift shop and the television news station. They apply for business loans and licenses and are approved or rejected by the banks. They hire and pay assistant managers and employees and begin advertising their wares to their peers. They even pay rent.

Reading, math and other essentials become part of their everyday tools. “If they have $58 and they want to take out $70 they can’t do that,” said Alice Xayavong, a shy 4th grader who likes math and works in data entry at one of the two Joyner banks. “You have to subtract and add to figure it out.”

They also deal with real issues that echo the problems in the outside world. Last year the hot topic was the minimum wage. Students noticed that prices were skyrocketing because businesses couldn’t pay off their loans easily. The government debated the issue and decided to lower the minimum wage from five MicroBucks to three MicroBucks a day.

There was also the question of “naturalizing” new students who needed jobs. Students created an employment agency that linked new kids to work. And then there were the peacekeepers — the equivalent of police — who kept bullying kids outside classrooms.

“We were like, ‘Oh my God, we have corrupt cops on our campus!’” said Rebecca Penh, a resource teacher who oversees the magnet program.

Nearly every student surveyed last year liked MicroSociety except for the peacekeepers, Penh said. So the courts worked out clearer rules with the peacekeepers and teachers provided more training on the different offenses. Students categorized them as infractions, misdemeanors and felonies and set fines and other penalties. A police officer is going to meet with them soon to explain the rules and responsibilities of the job.

“The main thing they have to cite people for is running,” Penh said. “They’re just so excited to get to their jobs!”

MicroSociety has been around for decades, starting with a single teacher in a Brooklyn classroom who created a lifelike game where students were paid in fake money for homework and attending class. He wrote a book and the idea began to catch on around the country, eventually spawning a national nonprofit that provides MicroSociety curriculum, training and technical support to hundreds of programs ranging from capitalist microsocieties that mirror the United States to one modeled on the United Nations to a constitutional monarchy with a king, a queen and prime minister.

The Joyner program was intentionally designed to look much like San Diego. MicroSociety educators are divided between those who say simulating the outside society is sensible to others who believe kids should have their choice of societies. Some believe that microsocieties should undergo a peaceful revolution every few years to give new students the experience of building a society from scratch.

“The idea can be hard for a lot of teachers to grasp,” said Cary Cherniss, a professor of applied psychology at Rutgers University who has studied MicroSociety programs. “The goal is not to create a smooth, functioning society where everyone gets along. The idea is to give kids the opportunity to develop a political system and deal with the kind of conflicts that come up in the process.”

Such programs have dwindled since the passage of No Child Left Behind, said Keith Pierce, senior vice president of MicroSociety. He estimates that the number of MicroSociety programs was nearly halved in the past eight years. Fewer than 200 programs exist today and many are held after school. It was a sea change from the Clinton years when MicroSociety was a recommended way to reform struggling schools and grants were available to implement the program, which Keith estimated costs between $15,000 and $50,000 annually depending on the size of the school.

The Joyner program is paid for by a federal magnet grant that provides for MicroSociety fees, uniforms, supplies, relevant books and two resource teachers, one to oversee the program and one to write curriculum and teach. It got $450,000 in its first year and $300,000 this year, Gutierrez said. It is the first magnet program in City Heights and the only microsociety in San Diego Unified, following in the footsteps of a Chula Vista charter school that offers the program.

“It is not an add-on program,” said Chief School Innovation and Choice Officer Rich Cansdale, who oversees magnets and charter schools in San Diego Unified. “It brings the real world right into the fabric of the school.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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