In one corner of the room, 11-year-old Jonathan Hinton was trying tomeet expenses even though he didn't get a paycheck because his homework wasn't done.
In the other corner, Robert Powell and John Drake, both 10, were haggling over the price of an apartment in a complex real estate deal.
In the middle sat Phyllis Smart, 10, busy tallying up the day's receipts from the stock market that just closed.
Welcome to Learnville, population 13. It is a classroom with apartment complexes, suburban homes, upper-class neighborhoods, plenty of banks, Realtors and stock brokers.
The fifth-grade residents all pay taxes, write checks, trade stocks, hold down jobs and run the town. It is a hectic daythat has the students running around with briefcases and calculators, trying to keep the paperwork from piling up on their desks.
"It's OK," said 10-year-old Phyllis. "I can't say I like it. I can't say I don't like it."
That's life. Or as close as one can come to lifein Gil Nadolny's classroom at the Annapolis Area Christian School, off Route 2 in Pasadena. For two months at the end of every year, he sets up a town.
Each day, the students get a paycheck -- $1,000 forcompleting their homework -- and a salary for their job. Bankers earn the largest salary --$487 a day in play money. Additional schoolwork can bring in more money, and students are allowed to start their own businesses.
Then come bills and taxes. An apartment at Learnville Towers costs $349 a day. A town house goes for $375 a day, and a single-family home with a garage, located on Big Bucks Lane, goes for $561.
Of course, students can buy their own homes. A duplex costs about $6,500 -- $1,000 down and $507 a month. That includes 10 percentinterest. This year, three students spent $15,938 to buy Learnville Towers. Those who rent there must pay the students.
Taxes eat up 12 percent of the daily income -- and students even have a form to fill out. "We make it confusing just to be realistic," said Nadolny, an 11-year veteran teacher.
Nadolny's small and complex world startedfour years ago when he was trying to come with something different. "I didn't feel like teaching, the students didn't feel like learning," he said. "So I started
The exercise, which consumes the entire afternoon of every day for two months, teaches students everything from how to balance a checkbook to how to manage money. They are surprised, Nadolny said, that it takes half a salary to pay for rent and an additional 12 percent for taxes.
"The biggest comment I get from parents is how tired their children are," he said. "The students are suddenly realizing how tight money is and where it allgoes."
Since the town's start three weeks ago, most students haveamassed about $5,000. Most were already heavy into the stock market,investing in such companies
as Pen Inc. and Excuses Unlimited. Nadolny sets all the prices and gives hints through the town newspaper how certain companies might do.
Stocks are traded for 30 minutes each day, with the prices updated on a chalkboard. The room is in a frenzy while students anxiously watch their stocks and buy and sell through the broker.
But the real trading was a real estate deal. Johnand Robert own the Learnville Towers and each have six payments lefton their mortgage. One apartment was vacant, and Robert wanted to move in. Since he is a part owner, the apartment would be free.
But that would leave John with one less paying tenant -- so he
wanted Robert to buy out his part of the deal for $3,000. They haggled for afew minutes and settled on $1,250. And like any good arbitrator, neither claimed defeat.
"That's what I was shooting at," Robert said."That's what I was shooting at, too," John countered. And both walked away happy.
Not everything works out so well. The government is a monarchy, with Nadolny as king. There is a parliament, but its power is limited.
"A couple of years ago they were planning a coup," Nadolny said. "I pointed out that if they put me out, they wouldn't have any money. Then the coup faded."
Nadolny controls the bank, which has an unlimited supply of money. All students must pay everythingby check, from their rent payments to buying a blue-and-green folderfor $12 at the town store.
Nadolny said he watches the students carefully so they don't manipulate the system. Greed sometimes takes over. He said one year the students figured out a way of consolidatingstock and earned millions of dollars. The exercise also has spurred a mean capitalist streak.
"They start asking me to pay them for things they had always done for free before," he said. "They hold the door open for me and ask if I can pay them for that."
But the students are learning about bureaucracy. Nadolny said he has tried to keeppaperwork at a minimum, but even with only 13 people, it still takesa day for a check to clear -- three days if is made out to the "IRS."
On the other hand, Jonathan Hilton still was having enough problems just meeting basic expenses. He was lucky, though, to have $3,000in savings and some additional funds invested in the stock market. "He's fortunate he has a long weekend to catch up on his work," Nadolny said. "Then he can get a big paycheck next week."
"Sometimes it can be pretty hard," said Jonathan, who earns $200 a day picking up trash. "Other times, it can be fun. I'm always having a bad day."