Feature stories

Dollars and sense

Economy booming in this 4th-grade class

Two customers, with O'Hagan, make their selections among the wares of the store Miller Photography

Two customers, with O'Hagan, make their selections among the wares of the store clerk (student at far right).

A client (left) goes over her accounts with her banker. Miller Photography

A client (left) goes over her accounts with her banker.

Sign of pay schedule Miller Photography

Figuring out an affordable rent based on salary is one of the project's real-life issues.

Like a lot of New Yorkers, many 4th-graders in Kate O’Hagan’s class pay high rent, track their bank balance, work two jobs, love bonuses, resent monopolies and hate traffic tickets.

Although they’re having fun, these children at PS 97 in Brooklyn are learning the serious business of being a grown-up in the Classroom Mini-Economy project, which O’Hagan began this past September after taking a free professional development unit on it at the Council for Economic Education in Manhattan. She’s been cashing in ever since.

“The kids love it; it’s extremely educational, runs itself, takes up very little instructional time and, because the pencil entrepreneur runs a monopoly and ‘sells’ at inflated prices, I have no issues with lost pencils for the first time in my 10 years of teaching!” O’Hagan says.

At the start, this 4th-grade teacher and chapter leader at the Gravesend school was skeptical that a bunch of 10-year-olds could handle the required responsibilities, fiscal and otherwise.

“But it took on a life of its own, became child-centered and is very empowering for the students,” said O’Hagan, whose school day starts with young bankers, librarians, store clerks, textbook monitors and others busy at their jobs.

Gone are the days of assigning class monitors.

Now, children have to apply for the job. In their cover letters, they must show their qualifications. The nurse monitor must be kind, responsible and patient. Librarians need good social skills in addition to reading smarts so they can find out what their clients like to read and direct them to the right section. Textbook monitors need brains and brawn. Students must be good in math to get banking positions, and if they don’t get hired, they’ll have another shot at the job after showing improvement in math.

Hiring takes place twice annually for jobs that are coveted despite the fact that salaries aren’t paid even in play money. This is a points-and-barter economy. Still, the virtual system doesn’t let you off the hook.

The bankers check your account book after you’ve paid rent (based on your desk and how fancy your name tag is), bought an exclusive franchise and raked in the dough (like the pencil vendor), or bought stuff at the store “like toys, books and other heavily discounted items I pick up, like Egyptian-art bookmarks,” O’Hagan says.

Then there are Accidental Wednesdays, with both good and bad surprises: A birthday card with money. A costly trip to the dentist. A bonus from your boss in one envelope; a traffic ticket in another.

A huge dividend is seamless classroom management, “which just flowed out of this academic project because students want to earn their salaries and be responsible in their jobs,” says O’Hagan, who then brought cluster teachers into the equation. Kids get bonuses and deductions for behavior in classrooms and hallways.

In addition to learning about math and economics, they learn what living within a budget — and being economical — truly means. “Another great real-world lesson is learning to delay gratification and be savers,” she says.

That Egyptian bookmark you impulsively bought last week might pale in comparison with the adorable stuffed dog for sale this week. If only you’d saved your money! Or, you could forgo adorable stuffed animals for a while and save up to rent the kind of high-end desk that everyone wants: one that’s enclosed so your stuff doesn’t fall out. Like most New Yorkers, the kids hanker after prime real estate.

When teacher and chapter leader Kate O'Hagan’s 4th-graders at PS97 in BrooMiller PhotographyWhen teacher and chapter leader Kate O'Hagan’s 4th-graders at PS97 in Brooklyn are grown up, she hopes they’ll know how “to delay gratification and be savers.”

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