At Renton school, kids earn paychecks, pay taxes and get tickets

The crimes heard in Talbot Hill Elementary School's Hall of Justice aren't exactly egregious.

Defendants might have thrown food or put another kid down, run in the hallway or cussed.

On one Thursday afternoon in Michael Raffanti's classroom court, a third-grade boy — who will remain unnamed because who wants to embarrass a little kid? — is accused of throwing a ball in the hallway.

This particular defendant is crafty, student prosecutors say. In a previous case, he set a legal precedent by proving "skipping" in the hall is not the same as "running," a ticketable offense.

In his current case, the defendant argues he only "tossed" the ball a short distance, which is not the same as throwing — also ticketable.

Fifth-grade Judge Kendrick Thomas didn't buy it though, and the accused had to pay his fine — $5 in Talbot Elementary's pretend currency, Cool Cash.

The Hall of Justice is just one facet of MicroSociety, a national program simulating the grown-up world of work — taxes, paychecks, tickets and all — for elementary and junior-high school students. According to the national office, Talbot Hill in the Renton School District is the only Washington school to run the model, which enhances the three "Rs" through teaching real-life skills. The three-hours-per-week program supplements the school's traditional classroom teaching.

Grants received

Talbot Hill adopted MicroSociety, formerly called the Ventures Program, in 1994 after a former principal obtained a grant from Boeing. It has also received grants from Social Ventures Partners for the past four years and was awarded a three-year grant worth almost $200,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last year.

The school has a student bank and "justice keepers" (cops), Legislature and television station, post office and book publisher, newspaper and theater group — the list goes on and on. Small business entrepreneurs can even order raw materials and office supplies online from the Talbot Hill Store.

Kindergarten through second-grade students participate in classroom-based business or governmental ventures, while third- through fifth-graders apply for jobs, then pack up their backpacks and head to work for one hour three days per week. Some folks, such as House and Senate members, also work during breaks or over lunch.

There are hundreds of jobs in 13 main places of work, called strands.

Kids might patrol the halls for lawbreakers (the school has 18 student-legislated laws) or process tickets, collect taxes or deliver mail, film interviews or write books, but they all get paid — in Cool Cash, that is. And the school's IRS gets its piece.

Like adults, most kids dislike that part, said parent and substitute teacher Angela Furukawa, "along with finding out you can get speeding tickets for running down the hallway."

Her 11-year-old daughter Kayla and 9-year-old son Joshua own a small business with another student, selling butterflies, hats and clothes pins. She transferred her kids from another Renton elementary specifically for the program. "It's hands-on learning," she said. "It's a real-life situation."

Real-life connections

Program director Sheryl Dunton said the jobs show children the connections between academic subjects, such as math, and real-world tasks, such as calculating taxes, managing payrolls, estimating profit and writing checks.

And when it comes to understanding political processes, such as elections and citizen initiatives, they're sophisticated beyond their years, Dunton said. "Usually you don't talk about these things on an elementary level.

"It's amazing their knowledge of what's happening in the world."

Parents and teachers are full of funny stories — the kinds of things that happen when kids play grown-up. Once, legislators rescinded a $15-per-day raise they'd given themselves after the school newspaper got wind of it. There was grim talk of impeachment. Legend has it one second-grade lawmaker asked, "Are they going to give us peaches?"

There are parallels to other adult vices.

Parent and volunteer Paula Eide remembers when one student embezzled $400 in Cool Cash from the school newspaper by writing himself a blank check. Bankers cashed it but were suspicious and called the paper, which eventually sued the student in the Hall of Justice.

He'd already spent the cash, Eide said, so he had to pick up litter as a community service.

"It's the real world," she said. "Things get lost. Things get stolen. Kids take advantage of each other."

But unlike the real world, he didn't lose his school-newspaper job. "We kept him on," she said.

It's hard for younger students to grasp some of the concepts, said Eide, also vice president of the school's PTA. Her kids, Kelsey and Nicholas, are in the fourth and first grades, respectively. "You're trying to cover so much ground, and they're just little kids. You really have to hand-hold with them."

Not all parents get it either, she added. "It has been kind of a struggle to get everyone to buy into it."

"They ask, 'How is this a math program?' " she said.

It's the kind of question educators must also ask in a political climate focused on standardized testing and accountability in education. Yes, the kids are having fun and learning, but does this educational model translate into better test scores?

Yes, say staffers with the MicroSociety association, based in Philadelphia. (The program was developed by former elementary-school teacher Dr. George Richmond in 1967 and became a nonprofit organization in 1991.)

Test scores

About 200 schools in 40 states have borrowed from or adopted the model, and its success is reflected in test scores, the association reported. In 1998, an independent evaluator examined a sample of MicroSociety school-test scores (from comparable state tests) and found a 25 percent increase in math scores, an 11 percent increase in language arts and a 7 percent increase in reading, it reported.

Talbot Hill has experienced a steady increase in fourth-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning scores since 1996. That year, 43 percent of students met the state standard in reading, 21 percent in math, 46 percent in writing and 60 percent in listening. By the 2000-2001 school year, those numbers increased to 69 percent in reading, 53 percent in math, 52 percent in writing and 78 percent in listening.

Third-grade Iowa Test of Basic Skills scores for 2000-2001 show Talbot students' math and reading skills surpassed district and state averages.

But tracking the data over time has been difficult, said Principal Ed Sheppard.

First, he said, no standardized test precedes the program, as the WASL was implemented in 1996 and the ITBS in 1999.

And since 1996, Talbot's population has changed dramatically, making it difficult to compare data. In 1997, Renton School District sixth-graders were shifted to middle schools, Sheppard said. That same year, the district also rezoned and the school moved across town while its home building was being remodeled.

The school's population went from 600-plus to 215. After returning to the building, adding a district gifted program and recruiting new students — Renton is a district in which parents can choose their children's schools, so anyone can attend Talbot — the school population is back up to about 475.

"I think everything has to be accounted," Sheppard said, "but they're things that have had a huge impact. Those are all factors, not excuses."

School's assessment

In an effort to get at the larger questions of success — and to meet granter requests for evaluations — the school is working on its own assessment with a private consulting firm.

Here's what Talbot educators want to know, Sheppard said:

Do students feel they have the skills to effect change in their own lives and the world around them?

Do they understand the relationship between their MicroSociety skills and daily life?

The school has convened student and parent focus groups to answer the questions, which take discussions on the program's success to a philosophical level beyond comparing standardized-test scores.

"We really wanted to prove that this model makes a difference," Sheppard said. "We are sure that an applied learning model does in fact improve student performance."

Fifth-grader Lynn Peeler says she gets lots of positive attention as general manager of the school's television station, KATS-TV, which features student-generated news and feature stories that are broadcast in classrooms. "Everyone wants to be on TV," she said.

She spends much of her time supervising reporters and anchors, making sure the work's getting done.

"It's fun running the whole business," she said. "I just walk around and make sure everyone's on task and doing everything right."

Kind of like real life.

Paysha Stockton can be reached at 206-464-2752 or