Page One

Students learn from microsociety

By Ben LumpkinDaily Planet Staff
Saturday March 17, 2001

Fifth-graders Erin Williams and Keila Russell lead busy lives. 

But that didn’t stop them from making time away from their regular occupations (Erin is a newspaper publisher and Keila is vice mayor of a small town) to start a small photography business. As first time entrepreneurs, they ran into difficulties making the business profitable. It may have been unrealistic to charge $7 retail for a product that cost only 50 cents to produce, they said. 

But in the bustling corridors of the City of Franklin Microsociety Magnet School last week, the business partners seemed undeterred. They’re already working on another business plan for a gourmet food shop specializing in caramel apples. 

“Food is a big seller,” Keila said. 

“And we want big sellers,” Erin said. 

Keila let this daring display of entrepreneurial spirit sink in before marching out the deal clincher. 

“And caramel apples are good with ice cream.” 

One of four magnet schools launched in Berkeley under a $3 million, three-year federal grant awarded in 1999, the City of Franklin teaches kids the skills they need to survive in the real world by building a real world within the school.  

The students study the same curriculum as other grade-schoolers, but for at least 45 minutes, twice a week, they use the things they learn as adult professionals might. 

“They say, ‘Oh, that’s why I need to know this,’” said Franklin Principal Barbara Penny-James. “Rather than just an academic exercise they see the practical application of what they learn.” 

Each grade is in charge of running an agency that the whole school, in community meetings, determined was a necessary component of their microsociety. Each agency is tied in carefully with the curriculum of that particular grade. 

Kindergartners, for example, draw on their science curriculum to run the school’s recycling agency. First-graders practice critical reading and writing skills as the employees of the school’s post office.  

Second-graders might be called a wing of the school’s state department. Their social studies revolve around the country of Brazil, and the students periodically launch public education campaigns to bring the rest of the school up to speed on South America’s largest and most populous country.  

Third-grade is the financial district. Students hone basic math skills as employees of the school store and the school bank. Fourth-grade is for the foodies. As the staff of the school restaurant, these students take field trips to Wild Oats Market on University Avenue to learn about nutrition. They visit area restaurants to study a broad array of menus before drafting one of their own. 

Fifth-graders report on everything going on in the lower grades as the staff of the “201 Times” newspaper. They work on writing and communication skills and draw on concepts learned in math, history and science classes to narrate the life of the school. 

“We’re preparing them to become more active participants in society,” said Franklin fifth-grade teacher Lourdes Lejano. “They don’t want to miss anything, because they have an opportunity to see the consequences if they do miss anything.” 

Franklin students are paid for the jobs in microdollars. They’re paid one microdollar for coming to school each day and another microdollar for coming to school on time. They, in turn, must to pay rent for the desks and school materials. Money left over can be spend at the school store, or on Market Day once a year, when students like Erin and Keila test their skills by operating entrepreneurial businesses. 

The power of the microsociety model is that it teaches responsibility and accountability, said Berkeley Chamber of Commerce CEO Rachel Rupert. 

“We get kids coming out of high school who can’t spell, don’t know how to problem solve, or don’t have the accountability to be on time (for work),” Rupert said. “(Franklin kids) are going to have a better understanding of what it takes” to hold down a real job. 

The microsociety isn’t just based on the real city of Berkeley, it’s actually linked to it wherever feasible. The school is a member of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce and sends a delegation to its annual trade show. A banker has visited campus to help third graders understand what it takes to run a real bank and a retired judge stops in occasionally to help with the school court. Next month he’ll swear in students lucky enough to pass the City of Franklin BAR examination. 

Students begin to see how the things they learn in school help determine which career path they can take, Franklin teachers said. 

“They’re able to link their own experiences and the experiences of their parents,” said Lejano. 

City of Franklin Microsociety Magnet School will soon expand to become the city’s only K-8 school, adding one grade each year for the next three years. 

“Everywhere I go people say, ‘Yes, this is the way to go,’ ‘Yes, this makes so much sense,’” Penny-James said. 

Penny-James said the microsociety works best with the middle school component in place because the activities of the older students enrich the school society and provide additional learning opportunities for students at all levels. 

For example, Franklin’s first sixth-grade class next year will study French and have an opportunity to travel to a French speaking country. Penny-James said the school will begin teaching some French even at lower grades, anticipating that students will want to start early when they see what’s in store for them in sixth grade. 

Irving Phillips, director of magnet programs for the Berkeley Unified School District, said it’s too early to say how well Franklin has met some of the key goals of federally funded magnet schools, like reducing racial segregation and raising student achievement. The school is still in the early stages of recruiting students from across Berkeley, he said, and it has only one year’s test scores under its belt. 

Franklin faired worse that most Berkeley elementary schools last year on standardized tests for reading, math, language and spelling, but part of that could be that the many of the school’s 170 students were underperforming in other schools and came to Franklin for “a second chance,” Penny-James said.  

Other Berkeley magnet schools have seen their test scores improve dramatically from the first year to the second, Phillips said. Malcolm X Arts & Academic Magnet School saw its state Academic Performance Index (API) rating climb from 622 in 1999 to 688 in 2000. The Rosa Parks Environmental Science School API climbed from 522 to 614 in the same period. 

Franklin had an API of 610 last year, the first year it was rated.