Anastasia Martinez has fallen upon tough times. She spends more than she makes, and when she didn’t pay her taxes, her peers voted to take swift action and her prized possessions were sold at auction.
Ryan Schino has had a difficult year too. He was suspended from his high-powered position of co-chief of staff to the mayor when it was discovered that he was angling to appoint a close friend as tax collector.
Among other things, they’ve learned one very important lesson: it’s tough being a grownup.
Martinez and Schino are students in Deborah Mitchell’s second grade class at Winsor Hill Elementary School, and over the past seven weeks, they have learned firsthand what it takes to function in society, albeit a “mini-society.”
“I think it’s really good practice for real life and I think it teaches them personal responsibility,” Mitchell said. “Everyone has a voice in the decision making process.”
The mini-society concept was developed by UCLA and supported by the Rhode Island Council for Economic Education, and Mitchell has run the civics project since 1990. Under mini-society, students make up their own town, elect a leader, appoint classmates to positions of importance, establish their own businesses and set the tax rate. Mitchell’s students even created their own currency and a flag for Firework Valley, the town name they voted for. When problems crop up, they hold town meetings or, in extreme cases, the sheriff could take the matter to court.
“The town meetings went really well. I don’t give them ideas – they come up with them on their own,” Mitchell said.
All of the town happenings are reported in The Boomtown Gazette, a newsletter that is distributed to students and families.
At Winsor Hill, all of the students must abide by three laws: keep Firework Valley clean and quiet, respect all people and their property, and pay your taxes on time. If laws are broken, Sheriff Joseph Thomas intervenes, giving a warning first, and then imposing three levels of fines before the matter must be taken to court.
When Schino was accused of being too noisy at his business, complainants took him to court. Judge Jalen Smith, however, ruled not guilty when a neighboring business testified on Schino’s behalf.
“Delya [Sabet] wasn’t even three inches away from Ryan and she was doing a lot of business,” Smith explained.
In addition to being a businessperson, Schino was a candidate for mayor. He ultimately lost to Michael Vita, but came on as a co-chief of staff, a position that he has enjoyed immensely.
“We walk around the town, take notes and help people. We give them advice. If the town’s not doing well, we have the notes so we know what to fix,” he said.
Residents of Firework Valley pay $6 per week in taxes, which is used to pay rent to the school and pay for essential services, like medical care through the school nurse and sanitation through the school janitor.
“If they don’t pay their taxes, we can’t build the roads, we can’t build the houses,” Smith said of the importance of paying taxes.
That was one of the important lessons Jose Ajoa took away from mini-society, as well.
“When you’re an adult, you have to pay taxes on time. If you don’t pay taxes, maybe they can sell your house and they can pay your taxes with the money from your house,” he said.
All of the students started with a small savings, as they earned money in the weeks leading up to mini-society, by doing good deeds or handing in homework.
Some students prefer to save their money, while others spend as soon as they get it, like Martinez, who loves to purchase games and toys. Victoria Winsor, who serves as the tax collector, paid all of her $42 worth of taxes up front, “so I didn’t have to worry about my taxes anymore,” she said.
Students also make their money by working.
“You’re not going to get money by asking – you have to earn it,” Smith said.
Business owners must seek approval from the business licensing committee, and if students expected a rubber stamp, they didn’t find one. Sabet, for example, wanted to sell nail polish, but the committee feared that the polish could spill and dirty the town, so they denied her request. Instead, she opened Glitter Nails and Tattoos, where she sells stickers for nails and other beauty items.
At Skyrocket Supplies, Anthony Gawlik sells school supplies and toys. After a few weeks, he narrowed down the types of goods he wanted to specialize in.
“We put them out to see what sells the most,” he said.
Many of the students said working at a business is challenging, though Smith was one of the students who said he would be interested in a career similar to the one he had in Firework Valley. They said the experience has prepared them for the future, and helped them to understand the dilemmas their parents face every day.
“We learned about how it is when you grow up,” said Hailey Baffoni.
For his part, Schino learned that perception is everything.
“Never hire your best friend if they want to work for the town,” he said. “You could get in big trouble.”