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A sneak peek at real world

By Christine Gillette

PORTSMOUTH - More than 100 business people, state and local officials and educators turned out Wednesday to break ground on a project designed to teach middle-schoolers what it’s like to be a grown-up.

Organizers of Exchange City New England, a project that creates a model city to be run entirely by fifth- and sixth-graders, hope to complete renovations on the city’s old Wentworth School by the end of this year.

"Over the coming months, this vacant, empty, cold shell will be transformed into city streets, a square, surrounded by stores, banks, enterprises," said Philip Ross, executive director of Exchange City New England. "All of the citizens of this city are fifth- and sixth-grade students. ... New Hampshire will become a center, not a backwater, for excellent innovative education."

Students at Exchange City, Ross said, will learn that spelling and grammar mistakes on their resumes won’t get them a bad grade, but will cost them the best-paying job in their model city, bank president. They’ll also learn that poor marketing and pricing of their business’ products will mean they don’t make payroll or payments on their bank loan.

"Where else does this happen in middle school America? It doesn’t," Ross said. "Our students are going to be the first in the region to experience this, not the last."

"This is going to be good for our kids to get started early," said Portsmouth School Superintendent Lyonel Tracy. "The time to start free-enterprise education is young. We need to prepare them early for their journey into life."

Assistant Superintendent Bob Lister, who has visited other Exchange Cities around the country, called the project "a great fit for the Portsmouth school district, but also the community" because it is "all about real-life skills."

"You’ve got to see it in action," said Tom Bolko, a sixth-grade teacher at Portsmouth Middle School, encouraging the community to return when Exchange City is in operation.

Too often students arrive at college ill-prepared, said Denise Benson, wife of Gov. Craig Benson, noting Exchange City will give younger students a chance to hold down jobs. "What a wonderful way to demonstrate the opportunities students have."

"I see this as an engine of possibilities," said Terry Conner of Liberty Mutual, an individual sponsor of the program.

Conner said Exchange City will give students a chance to experience the business world, to shape their thoughts about business and help prepare them for their future role in the business world.

Most recently used by Portsmouth Christian Academy, the Granite Street school has been vacant for the last few years and needs $1 million in repairs and remodeling to become home to Exchange City, the interior of which was designed by local architect Dann Batting.

Mayor Evelyn Sirrell called the program "a wonderful new venture" for the Wentworth School.

"It does my heart good to know that this school building will be home again to schoolchildren from not only Portsmouth, but all over the region," she said, estimating up to 15,000 a year will use Exchange City. Those children, Sirrell added, "could become our future city managers, or mayors, or bank presidents," and better citizens. "This is a venture well worth supporting."

So far, Exchange City New England has raised $400,000, and needs another $600,000 to complete the renovations, as well as $1 million to run the program for the first few years until it reaches break-even, according to Steve Berg, a local appraiser who is among Exchange City’s organizers.

The project is being developed in conjunction with Junior Achievement. Already signed on to sponsor the project financially are Liberty Mutual, Piscataqua Savings Bank, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Hampshire, Wendy’s Corp. and area franchisees, Dell Computer, Hewlett Packard, Grubb & Ellis|Coldstream Real Estate Advisors, KD Paine & Partners, Sargent Consulting, LTL Liquidators, the city of Portsmouth, Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce, New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, and the Hobbs and Sweet funds of the Greater Piscataqua Community Foundation.

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