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Sampling the world of commerce

Telegraph Corresondent
Published: Monday, Dec. 15, 2003

Police office Patrick Dorney is giving bank president Joshua Kern a ticket for the violation of walking on the grass during his break. City attorney Nick Solano, center, looks on. Sixth-graders from Charlotte Avenue School in Nashua took a field trip to Exchange City in Portsmouth on Dec. 4 to learn basic economic principles.
Sheryl Rich Kern
Police office Patrick Dorney is giving bank president Joshua Kern a ticket for the violation of walking on the grass during his break. City attorney Nick Solano, center, looks on. Sixth-graders from Charlotte Avenue School in Nashua took a field trip to Exchange City in Portsmouth on Dec. 4 to learn basic economic principles.

Commotion filtered through the foyer of One Justice Place where Mayor Matt McCarty paced alongside his cluttered desk.

His employees were overlapping voices on the fiscal crisis: the city’s tax rate structure could not help pay off the municipal loan. Should he raise taxes?

“Let’s increase the fines,” blurted police officer Patrick Dorney. Others agreed.

The mayor faced tough decisions. While his popularity rating was high, he risked a reversal of fortune. Perhaps, he and his employees could compromise: Maintain the fines, but create more laws, such as “no walking on the grass.” Certainly, this prohibition would snag a few more felons, not to mention hefty cash.

Would this solve problems or create more? What about generating revenue by renting space at City Hall?

The mayor’s worries would only last a day, but the lessons they taught would linger for life for him and the other students piloting an economics program Dec. 4 in New Hampshire. Donning uniforms and props, 104 sixth-graders at Charlotte Avenue Elementary School in Nashua had the opportunity to try out the economics concepts they had learned in the classroom in an authentic, simulated mini-city.

It’s all in a day’s work at Exchange City, the brainchild of The Learning Exchange, a nonprofit national education-consulting organization. Developed in 1982 in Kansas City, Mo., Exchange City provides a six-week classroom curriculum, which culminates in a one-day hands-on field trip where students manage a simulated economy in a mockup indoor town, reinforcing the lessons learned in the classroom.

Executive director Philip Ross moved the program eastward with an office in Portsmouth on 25 Granite St. He first heard about Exchange City in 1994 from his staff at the Lake Ossipee Conference Center, an education facility in Freedom, where he presides as director of Camp Cody in the summer. A few weeks later, he went to Kansas City to visit the Learning Exchange.

By 2000, the organization granted him the Exchange City license rights in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont, and he developed a nonprofit foundation to oversee the project. Currently, individual and corporate donations, such as those from Liberty Mutual, keep the program operational. Ross expects to host between 12,000 and 15,000 students each year, allowing the organization to financially support itself.

“Exchange City lets students actually experience and not just imagine what it is we’re teaching and preparing them,” Ross said.

On Dec. 4, the executive director opened the gates of the freshly painted, 7,000-square-foot Exchange City to Charlotte Avenue sixth-graders who were the first official New England citizens. In front of them lay 14 shops, including everything from a bank and distribution center to a sign shop, snack shop and sporting goods retailer.

Students immediately ran over to their assigned jobs (they had filled out job applications in the classrooms). During the course of the day, they were selling their wares, sorting letters through the postal system, writing, selling and printing a newspaper and broadcasting tunes over the airwaves. They wore the coats of workers and citizens in the high-wired world of producers and consumers.

According to “Mayor Matt,” who campaigned and won an election at school, his municipal job created more stress than he had anticipated. He didn’t realize the challenge of managing the accounts on the computer system.

“I’ve learned the real world is harder than I thought it was,” McCarty said. “I would like to be a student longer.”

Shop owners and employees had the task of taking out a business loan at the start of the day, with the intention of paying it back by the day’s end. All had a method of making income, whether it was selling radio advertising for the broadcast center or footballs for the sporting goods store. In the morning, the employees set up their businesses with supplies from the distribution center, outfitted by the Exchange City organization. By the afternoon, the citizens could break and purchase goods after receiving their paychecks.

Emily Pipilas, owner of the nature shop, sighed as she sat in the quietude of her store.

“The biggest challenge is paying off our loan. I don’t know if we’re going to make it,” she said. She doesn’t think she would like to own a shop. “I’ve learned a lot about economics and the meaning of the terms.”

Later in the afternoon, Pipilas’ mood shifted. She lowered the price of the tissue-paper flowers from $2.50 to $1.50, and the pencil toppers with wrapped pipe cleaners from $2 to $1. Within an hour, shoppers wrote checks as fast as she could ring the register.

“I’ve learned that if you lower the prices of some items, people are more likely to buy them,” she said. That day, her shop cleared a $55 profit.

Allie Long, proprietor of the Exchange City sign shop, didn’t see her profits increase until she starting creating more popular signs and began advertising a “buy one, get one free” policy.

“I’ve learned how to handle money, manage advertising, pay off a loan and treat employees,” Long said.

Alex Thurston spent the day trying out the role of a beat reporter for the radio station, prowling for story tips in the day-old Exchange City.

“You think it’s really easy,” Thurston said, “but it’s really not, because you have to walk around, find good stories, interview people and ask the right questions. Our teacher told us we would do this all on our own. This has been the best field trip we’ve ever been on.”

Circuiting the town was also part of Nick Solano’s job as city attorney, as he gave each shop its business license. “I’m enjoying my job,” Solano said. “It feels great to be here and be part of a big community.”

In contrast to the itinerant attorney and radio reporter, Joshua Kern saw all the businesses but never left his desk in his role as bank president, where he processed loans and monitored deposits on the computer.

“Every time I looked up I saw a line in front of me,” Kern said. “I was working every second.”

Judge Angela Daranong echoed the frenzy as she pulled out her bag lunch near the snack shop. “Wow, I finally get to sit down,” she said. “Now I know how my mom feels.”

About 14 parent volunteers participated in the field trip, spending the day with the students and attending a training session earlier in the week.

“I think one of the things that made the experience so remarkable was that the kids were able to incorporate the economic concepts they had been studying into actual activities, said Jeanne Batchelder, a parent volunteer.

“All of the children had specific and important tasks, and everyone had to work as a team to make their business operate in the black, a concept they fully understood. They repeatedly ran to the computer to check the status of their bank loan balance, hoping to pay off the loan by the end of the day. There was little time for anyone to be disengaged, as frequently happens on other field trips. The kids were too busy working and smiling.”

Living the concepts of supply, demand, scarcity, production and consumption is the experience Exchange City hoped to create, explained Jane Weber, interdisciplinary curriculum specialist for social studies for Nashua School District.

Weber came to Portsmouth for the day to observe the field trip, so she can promote and explain it to the middle school principals for next year.

“Previously, the sixth-graders were learning economics by memorizing vocabulary. Here they have to produce when there’s scarcity. They’re learning a tremendous amount. I’m very enthusiastic,” Weber said.

Ross knows the students are learning a lot, and he can prove it with independent studies. The Indiana Center for Evaluation demonstrated that Exchange City improves test scores, particularly in economic understanding.

“The teacher reaction to the program has been the best reaction of all,” Ross said.

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