An engaging buzz begins to move throughout the building as the narrow hallways fill with people. Familiar music played over the public address system signals a change of energy and the smell of homemade grilled cheese sandwiches and popcorn begins to waft through the air. Strategically placed members of the local constabulary ensure a sense of order and safety, while elected officials seize the opportunity to connect with their constituents. The local bank opens for the day as merchants make final preparations before opening their doors to eagerly waiting customers.
A scene from the local shopping mall? You might think so. In this case, however, as surprising as it might sound, it’s Market Day at Aspen Heights Elementary School in Red Deer, Alberta. It’s the day of the week when student-run enterprises, not-for-profits and services open their doors to the public. And it’s the day when members of the community – students, staff, parents and sponsors – come to support and participate in Canada’s only MicroSociety school.
Nearly ten years ago, two Aspen Heights teachers, Milt Williams and Allan Baile, were concerned about the level of apathy that seemed to be building among students, as well as a sense that more could be done to engage the parent community. After researching programs that might help address these challenges, they landed on MicroSociety, a U.S-based not-for-profit founded on the belief that, if we want to educate today’s children to be able to run the world, we have to give them a world to run. And that’s exactly what the Aspen Heights MicroSociety does.
A MicroSociety is a living, breathing, fully-functioning community, facilitated by adults but organized and run by young people. An annually-elected government allows students to create the laws and ordinances that will govern the community, while the Royal Aspen Mounted Police have the authority to issue tickets and fines and, in more serious cases, move grievances through an internal court system.
At Aspen Heights, students are free to develop their own ideas for new initiatives, learning how to create the business models, not-for-profits and social services to bring those ideas to life. In the context of their enterprises, they develop new products, hire staff, learn to maintain financial records, pay taxes and even buy and sell stocks.
At the start of each year, all students are required to attend MicroUniversity, where they learn the business skills that they will need to carry on their work throughout the year. Business and service owners hold job fairs, accept resumes and conduct interviews with prospective workers.
For students, half of the six hours per week dedicated to MicroSociety is spent developing products, meeting with their employees and taking care of any enterprise-related issues. The other half is spent participating in Market Day, either as shoppers or business operators.
A look down the main corridor of Aspen Heights reveals that these students have considered much of what is needed to ensure that their community is thriving. The bank converts Canadian dollars to Stingers, the official currency of Aspen Heights. The smoothie bar is always busy, as is the Penguin Ave. Café. The Ace Theatre offers students a chance to relax, enjoy some popcorn and take in an episode of their favourite TV program. There’s a wellness centre, a bottle recycling depot and Helping Hands – a charitable outreach program. On the sustainability side, some students spend their time learning about hydroponic gardening, while others raise the urban chickens that provide fresh eggs for the school’s breakfast program.
Some may look at what is happening at Aspen Heights as an impressive and engaging simulation, while others may wonder how it’s possible to find time in a busy schedule to make this work.
For the students, staff and parents at Aspen Heights, it is clear that this is not preparation for some life beyond graduation. This is life – very real life! It’s what draws them to this place every morning and it’s what captures their imagination when away from school. Business owners think about how to improve their products and services. Employees consider how they might strengthen their skillset.
And teachers look at what is happening in the MicroSociety to help inform their curriculum. Amanda Williams, a Grade 2 teacher at Aspen Heights, appreciates how the model connects the entire school, regardless of age, grade and ability. But, like her colleagues, she also watches for opportunities to ensure that her classroom program resonates with what students are doing in the MicroSociety community. “You work with it, you plan with it, you get involved,” says Williams as she warns against seeing MicroSociety as an extra-curricular initiative. Instead, it becomes a powerful context for learning both inside and outside the classroom.
Current coordinator Allan Baille passionately underlines the point that this is not a simulation. For Baille, MicroSociety begins with a very engaging invitation and challenge: “Let’s bring the community to us and not have these walls be the limit of the education of our students.” And that invitation has become a game changer for Aspen Heights. Students who, in the past, may have been apathetic about coming to school are voting with their feet, leading to some of the highest attendance numbers in the entire division. Parents, once reluctant to come into the school, are now seeing Aspen Heights as part of their identity and their life.
A parent satisfaction rating of 97 percent speaks volumes about how MicroSociety has transformed this community. And the willingness of outside businesses and organizations to support what is happening at the school brings the idea of partnership to a whole new level.
There is no doubt that students graduating from Aspen Heights after six years of life in this MicroSociety will have an enviable array of business skills and competencies. They will have a keen sense of what it means to live in the world as creative thinkers, risk takers and problem solvers. They will have the capacity to communicate their ideas more effectively and with greater confidence. But they will also have experienced the learning that begins when you get out from behind your desk and get involved in something that really matters.
Photo: EdCan Network
First published in Education Canada, December 2017