'Micro-Society' Schools Tackle Real-World Woes

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As economists across the country discuss how to reduce the massive federal deficit, they might consider soliciting the advice of a growing number of young citizens whose daily lessons focus to a surprising degree on complex fiscal matters.

Take, for example, the students of the City Magnet "micro-society'' school in Lowell, Mass. Several years ago, these youngsters wrestled with an economic crisis of their own when the school's legislature ran out of its in-house currency, the "mogan,'' and failed to make its payroll for government "employees''--among them judges, public defenders, and police officers--for five weeks. As a result, the school's junior civil servants could no longer pay their taxes, which in turn saddled their peers with a tremendous micro-society deficit.

The Lowell students are not alone in learning how to tackle such real-life problems at an early age. The micro-society school they attend--the nation's first--has been replicated in at least two dozen schools that aim to link school lessons more intimately with the workings of society.

Micro-society schools are exactly what they sound like--schools that operate miniature civilizations complete with all the trappings of the real world: a legislature, courts, banks, post offices, newspapers, a host of entrepreneurial businesses, and even an Internal Revenue Service. Students hold jobs and are paid salaries in an ersatz currency, which they use to pay simulated taxes and tuition and to purchase a variety of goods and services at the school's marketplace.

Rapidly Growing Network

Until this September, the creators of the micro-society concept thought there were only five such schools in the nation--three in New York State and two in Massachusetts. But after an article about the program appeared in Time magazine that month, a slew of other schools reported that they had adopted the approach on their own. What was once a handful of innovative schools had rapidly materialized into a restructuring network.

Today, there are at least 24 micro-society schools in operation, 12 more known to be in the planning stages, and another two dozen seeking seed money to begin planning.

Representatives from 17 of the schools traded anecdotes about the challenges of setting up and sustaining a micro-society at a meeting in New York City last month, convened at the offices of the New York City Partnership, an association of business leaders that sponsors an extensive summer-jobs program for youths.

Like adopted children who have suddenly discovered a long-lost set of relatives, the educators found a host of like-minded partners to compare notes with.

"We're no longer alone and isolated in the wild,'' remarked Carolynn King, a Philadelphia lawyer who serves as the executive director of the consortium of micro-society schools.

Roots in 1970's

Micro-society schools are the brainchild of George H. Richmond, who first sketched a blueprint for them nearly 20 years ago in a now out-of-print book, The Micro-Society School: A Real World in Miniature.

The philosophy behind the schools is simple: Make schooling more relevant by connecting children's lessons to actual societal institutions, and create a form of mock currency to use as an incentive system.

Although Mr. Richmond set up small-scale versions of the program while working as a public school teacher and administrator in New York City and Hartford, Conn., in the 1970's, it was not until 1981 that his idea was integrated into the curriculum of an entire school.

That year, several educators from Lowell, Mass., asked Mr. Richmond to help them create a magnet school that would use the resources of their city to reinforce connections between academics and the workforce.

Since then, the Lowell school has become the prototype for new micro-society schools. Many of the schools that came to light after the Time article was published turned out to be the creations of educators who had visited Lowell, Ms. King said.

Classes and 'Jobs'

Each morning at the micro-society schools, students have lessons in traditional academic subjects, but they are taught in a manner emphasizing their real-world applications. Social studies, English, mathematics, and science thus metamorphose into government, publishing, economics, and architecture and engineering.

In the afternoons, the students go to their "jobs'' at student-run businesses, newspapers, and government agencies. Through these experiences, the students learn to answer their own fundamental questions about society, said Ms. King, including: "What do people get paid for? What can they spend their money on? What are they taxed on? Where do taxes go?''

Teachers also derive benefits from the schools' miniature market systems; they receive a portion of the "tuition'' students pay to use for rewards, and can levy fines when errant students chew gum in class or forget their homework.

The primary goal of the simulation, said Evans Clinchy, a consultant to the Lowell school, is for students to "develop in their heads very complete mental models of what a society is and how it works.''

The schools' focus on economics and work-related skills also addresses American business leaders' concerns that students are not being prepared adequately for the workforce, said Samuel M. Matsa, the K-12 issue manager for the International Business Machines Corporation's education program. At the micro-society schools, he said, students "are not just learning multiplication for its own sake, they're learning math because it's important to balance [their] checkbooks.''

A Focus on Citizenship

But proponents of the schools say their objective is not just to churn out competent, compliant workers for corporations; they also seek to cultivate the skills students need to be good citizens in a democratic society.

Most micro-society schools have a student-written constitution, an elected legislature, and an elaborate court system. Students serve as judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, bailiffs, and jurors in trials that resolve actual disputes that arise over such incidents as stolen lunch money or playground games gone awry.

In addition to settling the conflict at hand, a trial becomes an opportunity to teach morals and ethics, noted Fred Hernandez, the principal of the Eugenio Maria De Hostos Micro-Society School, a public elementary school in Yonkers, N.Y. The students also "get satisfaction out of someone in their peer group hearing out the issue,'' he said, "and they follow the process through until justice is rendered.''

And, said Ronald K. Noble, a New York University law professor who is helping a new micro-society school in Manhattan set up a court system, the students often turn out to be harsher disciplinarians than their adult counterparts.

This justice system in miniature also helps students better understand the interaction between the different branches of the nation's government, Mr. Richmond said. He recalled a time when a former student of his, a particularly brawny 6th grader, was extorting money from his classmates and threatening to beat them up. Students at the school quickly discovered they could not press charges because their constitution had no law banning extortion. So the legislature quickly passed a bill outlawing it, and shortly afterward the culprit was taken to court, found guilty, and fined by a jury of his peers.

Bringing Marketplace to School

While the notion that students learn best through experience is far from new, advocates of the micro-societies say that few schools have truly put this philosophy into practice.

For the most part, Mr. Richmond contended, schools still resemble feudal societies, and teachers are "the manor lords who stand up in front of class and lecture.''

"The marketplace is as old as civilization,'' he observed, "yet we don't have any in our schools.'' In contrast, he asserted, the micro-society schools are a living, breathing "laboratory of democracy,'' where "the school itself becomes a medium of instruction, not just a place where instruction takes place.''

Administrators at the schools--most of them public elementary and middle schools, though some private schools have shown interest--say the program has been a tremendous success. The schools, they say, have proved enormously popular and several have lengthy waiting lists for prospective students.

Since the program came to the Yonkers school, Mr. Hernandez said, attendance has improved dramatically, the suspension rate has decreased, and student scores on standardized tests have improved.

Mr. Richmond acknowledged that the concept has some weaknesses. Most micro-society schools have emphasized verbal, math, and social-studies skills at the expense of science and technology.

To address that shortfall, the consortium has enlisted the aid of Mario Salvadori, a former professor of civil engineering and architecture at Columbia University, to help bolster its science and technology efforts.

'Staying Power' Seen

Here in the offices of the New York City Partnership, located in a skyscraper at the southern tip of Manhattan, the leaders of the micro-society consortium spent two days recently trying to determine what services they will need to provide to their rapidly expanding network of schools. So far, they have not decided whether and how schools will become formal members of the consortium and what costs may be involved for the curricular materials and general guidance it provides.

"There's so much to do,'' remarked Mr. Richmond, who still seems a bit dazed by the knowledge that his two-decade-old vision has suddenly attracted national attention.

Because the micro-society schools incorporate many other elements of the education-reform movement--such as cooperative learning, hands-on instruction, small class size, and interdisciplinary teaching--observers suggest that it is likely to have staying power.

"The micro-society concept has so much potential to really take hold all over the country,'' said Mr. Matsa, the I.B.M. executive.

Peter Samton, an architect who helped design a new building for New York's renowned Stuyvesant High School and who is a consultant to the consortium, anticipates that the micro-society movement will even have a dramatic impact on the design of new schools and the renovation of existing buildings.

"You will see physically big changes in how schools look and how they work,'' he predicted.

Vol. 12, Issue 13, Page 1, 14

Published in Print: December 2, 1992, as 'Micro-Society' Schools Tackle Real-World Woes
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