If 10-year-olds ran the city ...

In a miniature town, these junior captains of industry apply lessons about finances

December 28, 2005|By GINA DAVIS | GINA DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

Peter Kilchenstein's eyes stretched open and his jaw sagged with disappointment when he realized his mistake: He didn't have enough money in his checking account.

He had added when he should have subtracted. He thought he had $1.10 to spare. It wasn't until after he had carefully filled in all the blanks for a $1 check and handed it over as payment that he discovered he had only 90 cents in his account. In the process, he learned a new word - overdrawn.

"I guess I'll have to return it," Peter said as he puzzled over how he had managed to overspend.

For the organizers of Exchange City - a 10,000-square-foot miniature town created by Junior Achievement of Central Maryland in Owings Mills - the jam Peter found himself in was the ultimate teachable moment.

"Here they can pick up the life skills that they are not going to get in their regular classrooms," said Stephanie Blanchard, manager of Exchange City for Junior Achievement.

Peter and about 115 other fifth-graders from Mechanicsville Elementary School in Gamber had come to Exchange City to put their lessons about financial matters into practice by running the town for a day.

In recent weeks, the pupils applied and interviewed for positions such as mayor, bank president, accountant, police chief, judge, journalists and radio station disc jockeys. Each child had a job for the day and was responsible for accomplishing particular tasks, Blanchard said.

"In the classroom, they've been learning how to manage a checkbook, complete loan applications and pay off loans, write resumes, complete job applications and interview for jobs," she said. "Just about any economic concept, we cover."

Junior Achievement, a nonprofit organization, began offering an after-school program in Massachusetts high schools in 1919, Blanchard said. The after-school program is offered nationwide and in more than 100 countries.

Exchange City - which evolved from a high school program as the financial community began urging that children start learning money concepts earlier - was the first one to be launched on the East Coast when it opened in Owings Mills in 2000. It is the only such facility in Maryland, Blanchard said, and draws about 150 schools from across Central Maryland throughout the academic year.

"Junior Achievement was looking for ways to reach younger and younger children," she said. "The earlier we teach these students, the less intimidated they are by money and the more they understand what their role in the economy is."

Before visiting Exchange City, pupils spend 10 hours to 30 hours in the classroom learning about financial matters. Junior Achievement provides the schools with a curriculum to follow.

Tami Moore, who was one of about 20 parent volunteers helping the pupils, said it had been an "eye-opening experience" for the children - including her daughter, Zoe, who was the city's TV station script writer for the day.

"She's getting a better idea as far as real life and money and how things work," Tami Moore said. "For instance, writing in the checkbook. A few weeks ago, we were out shopping and she now has a better understanding that there has to be money in the account before you write on that piece of paper."

Zoe said she has learned a lot about financial matters, all of which boils down to a fundamental truth:

"You have to get money," she said. "You're not a kid anymore, and you have to take care of yourself."

The mock town has 14 businesses that offer either a service or a product, Blanchard said. In addition to a bank and post office, the pupils ran a wellness center, a newspaper (called The E.C. Times), a sporting goods store, a sign-making business and a shipping outlet called IPS.

Caroline Russell was mayor for the day, having been elected from among six candidates at school. As one of the highest-paid employees of Exchange City, Caroline earned about $6 a week - before taxes.

From City Hall, which was nestled in a corner next to the wellness center, Caroline commanded a staff of police officers, a city finance manager, an environmental control agent and the town judge (who was discovered to have been throwing away violation tickets, making it impossible to track the town's offenders and determine whether they had paid their fines).

Caroline also was responsible for issuing permits for shop owners who wanted to post signs outside their businesses emblazoned with slogans such as "We Put the Slam in Jam," which beckoned listeners outside the radio station's headquarters. The sign outside Caroline's office read: "If you mess with the law, you're sent to City Hall."

The town's laws included bans on violence, vandalism, shoplifting, foul language, food outside the snack shop, chewing gum and walking on the town center's grass. Violators paid fines ranging from $2 for gum chewing to $4.50 for committing violent acts.

By far, the most commonly violated law was the prohibition against walking on the grass, a wide swath of green carpet in the town's center. The fine for that was $2.50, but Exchange City residents could avoid the fine by purchasing a $1 "grass pass."

This is what Peter Kilchenstein was trying to do when he discovered his fuzzy math. As the utilities services agent, he had to crisscross the town repeatedly as he went from business to business to read meters.

If he could walk across the grass, he could save a lot of time. The $1 grass pass was an investment, he decided.

After discovering that he lacked sufficient funds in his account, Peter made the only responsible decision.

"I'll have to return [the pass] and get my money back," he said. "And keep walking the long way."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

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