School Mirrors a Working World
Students gain real-life experience by holding `microsociety' jobs in an urban magnet school
LOWELL, MASS. — ON a crisp, bright fall morning, students stream into the City Magnet School, a sprawling brick building in the heart of this working-class city. Like most students, these youngsters will spend time in class preparing for jobs of the future. But for these young people, the job in their future is only hours away. Some students are judges or lawyers in the school's court system, others are bank tellers or loan officers at First Magnet Bank in the basement of the school, and some students even own their own businesses.
The 300-plus students in kindergarten through eighth grade each participate, at some level, in the ``microsociety'' that governs every aspect of this school.
``Everyone gets a job,'' principal Sue Ellen Hogan says, ``We don't have any unemployment.''
And what makes this microworld go 'round? ``Mogans'' - the school currency, named after former-superintendent Patrick Mogan, an early supporter of the school. Mr. Mogan is now immortalized by having his mug on the one-denomination mogan bill.
All students at the City Magnet School must pay mogans to cover weekly taxes and rent on the desks they occupy. Students in kindergarten through third grade receive a small salary for doing their work and being good school citizens. Once students enter fourth grade, they are given a job and paid a salary ranging from 40 to 60 mogans. Students open bank accounts, write checks, and use their mogans to buy school materials and other goods at the marketplace.
``The whole intent of the program is to teach the basics using this vehicle of microsociety,'' says Dave Cronin, a technology and science teacher. ``You teach math through an economy where kids pay taxes and have to buy things.'' Mr. Cronin was one of 18 teachers who helped design the school almost 10 years ago.
Although the students do their ``jobs'' only during the 70-minute activity period at the end of each school day, ``microsociety is the backbone of the school,'' Cronin says.
Students in the upper grades seem to understand the connection between microsociety and their education. ``We use what we've learned throughout the day'' in our microsociety activities, says Amy Carrington, an eighth-grader who served as a judge in the court last year.
Students elect a school president and vice-president who supervise five executive departments and the legislature. ``The laws permeate the school for the entire seven hours that we're open,'' Cronin says.
Thomas F. Malone, program facilitator and another of the original teachers, remembers the challenges - and extraordinary opportunities - of founding the school in 1981. ``It's not often that teachers are empowered with a mission to create a unique school,'' he says. The goal was to create two new citywide schools in an effort to foster voluntary desegregation.
A magnet school for the arts, which now shares a block-long downtown building with the City Magnet School, was the other school founded at the time. Innovative programs, the founders reasoned, might attract a diversity of students.
Today, the microsociety school reflects the racial makeup of the city of Lowell - 55 percent white and 45 percent minority. Despite initial skepticism and apprehension in the community, the school has gained an excellent reputation. A lengthy waiting list attests to the program's popularity among parents and students.
The original idea of a minisociety in the classroom came from George Richmond, who developed it as a teacher in the New York public school system in the late '60s and early '70s (see boxed story). His 1973 book, ``The Microsociety School: A Real World in Miniature,'' provided guidelines for the group of teachers and administrators in Lowell.
Over the past decade, the City Magnet School has adapted the microsociety program to the evolving needs of students and teachers. ``Things change constantly,'' says Frank Weymouth, who has been teaching at the school for eight years. ``We're kind of in a state of constant revolution ....''
``It's flexibility, not revolution,'' another teacher interjects.
Mr. Weymouth agrees: ``It isn't the kind of situation where you walk in and every single day is a mirror of the other for year after year after year,'' he explains.
``We change our schedule constantly to meet our needs,'' says government teacher Patty Manning.
To make this possible, teacher-to-teacher communication and willingness to cooperate are crucial. ``It requires a faculty that is willing to work harder than most,'' says Don Hayes, an original teacher at the school.
Not all teachers who have come to the school do well under the program. ``Some teachers have come and lasted a year, some have lasted 20 minutes,'' veteran teacher Cronin says.
``There's a tremendous amount of ownership among the teachers,'' he says. ``We design the program, we sit down and have meetings about it. Everybody at that meeting is an equal, everybody has an equal voice.''
Dr. Hogan, who has been head of the school for less than a year, gives full credit to the teachers. ``The teachers are the ones who really carry the school,'' she says. ``They go above and beyond what they are expected to do.''
Parental involvement is another factor in the success of the school. Parents have been champions of the school from the early days. Many parents work in the microsociety activities as advisers, and the school boasts an unusually active parents' association.
The school ``deals with the whole child and the whole family,'' says Janet Brand, who has two children in the school and one graduate. ``It's not just a matter of how that kid performs in math class.''
BEFORE graduating, students must work in each of four ``strands'' at least once. The strands include: publishing, in which students write and produce newspapers, magazines, and a yearbook; economy, in which students operate the bank and marketplace; government, in which students administer the court system; and high-technology, in which students use computer skills to ease all the activities within the microsociety.
As seventh-graders last year, James Bailey and Sergio Perez had a business that built and sold spinning tops.
James and Sergio took out a loan from the school bank and bought materials at the marketplace to make the tops. After selling out three times, the two young enterprisers ended up with a profit. They're thinking of starting another business this school year.
Margaret Pollard, who has had three children in the school over the years, says the City Magnet School is the best thing that ever happened for her family. ``When your children don't give you any problem getting up to go to school,'' she says, ``you know something is happening here.''