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City Heights Students Learn By Running Their Own Micro City

— It’s a typical Wednesday afternoon for Veronica Lias’ fifth graders at Joyner Elementary School in City Heights. She's reviewing everything the students have learned about the respiratory system before the test they’ll take the next day.

Aired 6/14/12 on KPBS News.

A unique City Heights schools gets kids to put their classroom skills to work running a city of their own.

Two Joyner Elementary School students who work as fire fighters in the school's micro city review exit route maps.
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Above: Two Joyner Elementary School students who work as fire fighters in the school's micro city review exit route maps.

"You breathe air in through your . . ." she prompts.

"Nose," the students say in unison.

But when the bell rings, instead of a new batch of students for science, Lais’ classroom fills with a mix of Kindergarten through fifth graders who run the school’s peacekeepers agency. They get down to business quickly.

Julio Romo is a fifth grader and the peacekeepers manager. He takes a role and announces the employee of the month.

Three afternoons a week during the last hour of the day Joyner is not just an elementary school. It’s also a tiny city that the kids call Micro. That city is based on a framework developed by a nonprofit called MicroSociety.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

“We patrol outside to keep all the citizens safe" says Fifth Grader Cesar Benitez. "If someone’s like jumping off the stairs or running we give them one ticket and it has all the things that you can’t do in school -- like fighting . . all the like crimes.”

Kids who get tickets have to pay a fine or go to the peacekeepers headquarters to attend peace school.

But Benitez is the financial coordinator for the peacekeepers, so he won’t be out patrolling the walkways with his coworkers this afternoon.

‘I’m writing checks for the people that have been working this week. If they’re absent, I kind of take away some of the money," he says. "This is the total amount they get each day they’re working and if they’re absent one day I lower the payment.”

The peacekeepers is an agency. So the money, or Micro Dollars for those paychecks comes from the Micro government. There are also businesses started with loans from the school's commercial bank, where students can buy things like decorated bookmarks or CDs burned with music they’ve recorded themselves.

Every student has a job and two out of every three Micro days about a quarter of the students have off to go shopping, or run errands, like taking those paychecks to the bank.

Outside students are moving between classrooms unsupervised. But what might be chaos at a traditional elementary school is mundane here. Some students with marketing jobs stand in the walkways with posters promoting their ventures. There’s no running, no screaming.

Downstairs from the peacekeepers’ headquarters, fifth grader and personal banker Melanie Sanchez greets customers dressed in her Trust Bank uniform, a button-down shirt and tie.

“If they don’t have an account, we make them, we help them open one," she says. “Then they just come to one of the tellers and give them the check to put their money in.”

At the teller window Diego Garcia is trying to solve a customer’s problem.

“We don’t get this thing because he’s saying, about this check, something about this check,“ he says. "He says he left his check here."

Erika Archuleta, the teacher supervising the bank, doesn’t move from where she stands in a nearby corner to help Diego and his coworker figure out the confusing check.

“I’ll intervene if the manager has a question or if a student comes to me with a question, I send them to the manager," she says. "I’m just in here as an adult who has to be here, but the students are the ones who run this.”

And that’s the whole point according to Joyner Principal Joe Austin.

“My biggest fear as a principal is that this sort of looks like we’re playing house," he says. "Like we're putting kids in police uniforms and having them act like police for an hour a day. It’s not what’s going on here. What’s going on here is really kids learning how to be interdependent and applying what they’re learning in school to solve real problems in a way that traditional classroom activities won’t give them the chance to.”

Among the problems kids are trying to solve in Micro this afternoon is one familiar to all capitalist societies -- tax evasion. Micro government treasurer Sharon Li says the taxes are nothing new, so all students know how to pay them.

"Well, we have booths," she says. "So they could pay their taxes there or thy could go to the executive branch. So far we’ve tried to make it easier for people to pay their taxes, like at the booths and we advertise and that’s it.”

The idea behind the MicroSociety program is that all students will perform better academically if the lessons they learn in class are made applicable to their daily lives.

That idea seems to be playing out at Joyner where nearly all of the students come fro low-income households and more than half are not native English speakers.

While the school's scores on California's standardized tests were below the state's target last year, they have risen significantly since the the school opened in 2007. Last year Joyner was in the top 30 percent of schools serving similar student populations and in the top ten percent each of the two previous years.

Veronica Lias, who supervises the peacekeepers, says she sees how having to work through complicated issues during Micro changes the way her students approach their normal classes.

“You start to see that difference with those kids that are not as verbal," she says. "Because of the interaction they have during Micro time. they do become more verbal and are able to communicate with adults and to use terminology that applies to their agencies and start applying it in regular class and their everyday conversations.”

Austin says the next step for Joyner is to bring in professionals to mentor students. He wants to show them that the skills they’re learning in Micro can help them outside the school’s walls, too.

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