The Saginaw Public School District is refurbishing a closed junior high school, the Arthur Eddy Academy, and turning it into a new K-8 magnet school, opening this fall, that will use a nonstandard curriculum called “MicroSociety.” The curriculum, in which students collaborate with parents, business volunteers, and teachers to create functioning small communities, is used in more than 200 schools nationwide.

Saginaw administrators are hoping the MicroSociety program will help their district stop a steady flow of student losses—which have averaged 300 per year for several years—resulting from increased competition from charter schools and other districts through Michigan’s “schools-of-choice” program. These enrollment losses result in a significant decrease in local funding each year, which has forced the Saginaw district to take steps to improve for its own survival.

The MicroSociety concept was begun in the late 1960s by George H. Richmond, a New York City teacher who became alarmed at his students’ lack of enthusiasm for education. Richmond could see that the culture of socio-economically depressed areas not only was depriving his students of the social skills and knowledge they would need to break the cycle of poverty, it also had created a dangerous apathy among students and parents alike about the prospects for improvement.

The program Richmond created in response to this problem is, in essence, a mini-society in which traditional academic subjects are studied in the morning, then applied “on the job” during afternoon program activities. Students spend one hour or one class period each day in their “jobs,” where they learn to run businesses, apply technology, develop government and social agencies, and create cultural and arts organizations. Gradually, students become immersed in the realities of a free-market economy, with taxes, property concerns, income issues, and politics. The school operates an internal economy with its own currency, and students form a legislature that makes laws to govern the society.

As MicroSociety Inc. says on its company web site, “MicroSociety enables teachers to answer two persistent questions students ask: ‘Why do I need to know this?’ and ‘How do I fit in?’”

Several aspects of MicroSociety give inner-city children experiences that expand their perspective and may give them a better chance to participate in mainstream culture. For example, instead of experiencing the legal system from behind a defendant’s or plantiff’s table, pupils participate in student “courts” and adjudicate and enforce a code of local laws, ordinances, and school rules. By becoming active in lawmaking and enforcement, they see a side of the culture that may help them to avoid lawbreaking and to take advantage of real opportunities in the future.

MicroSociety is structured to integrate with the curriculum used by the school district, which is, in Saginaw’s case, based directly on the Michigan Curriculum Framework, the set of guidelines and requirements issued by state government. The basic curriculum is the same as in a more traditional school, but emphasis is placed on subjects that are relevant to the society. The motivation for students to learn is greatly increased because success in the society is based on whether they can apply what they have learned in class to their roles. Business owners must be skilled in arithmetic, for example; lawyers and public officials must have public speaking skills; and police officers must know the laws of the society and the school.

“At first, the students are motivated by the extrinsic rewards of MicroSociety,” says Donna Block, who will be MicroSociety coordinator when the Arthur Eddy School re-opens in August. “However, as children experience success in their academic skills, the intrinsic rewards of a job well done translate into a genuine love of learning.”

Implementation of the program begins with teacher and administration training this summer, conducted by MicroSociety professional development staff. The license for the program costs nearly $100,000 over three years. This provides training at the school for all building administrators and faculty throughout the next three school years as well as support to help integrate the current curriculum with that of the MicroSociety program. MicroSociety also will produce annual reports on the school’s progress for these three years, and the district must employ a full or part time MicroSociety coordinator to administer the program.

The school that inspired Saginaw administrators to adopt the program last summer is William Davison Elementary School outside Hamtramck, where MicroSociety has been in place since 1993. Since adopting the program, Davison school has become both a National and State Blue Ribbon Award winner and has received the Michigan Golden Apple Award, both awards for student performance on standardized tests. According to recent data, 80 percent of schools that use MicroSociety show enhanced achievement in math, reading, and language arts—increases that are notably greater than the national average annual increase in those three areas. MicroSociety schools also have higher attendance rates and fewer disciplinary problems.

The Saginaw Board of Education recently approved a $5 million bond issue for construction to remodel the Arthur Eddy School and make it usable for elementary and middle-school students. Small classrooms will be made larger by removing walls, restrooms will be built closer to classrooms, a new media center will be built, and a new cafeteria will replace the swimming pool. Separate doors and drop-off areas for lower elementary, upper elementary, and middle school will be constructed to lighten morning and afternoon traffic congestion. Construction is expected to continue through the year but the school will still open this fall.

As with charter and private schools, students are not assigned to Eddy based on their neighborhood of residence. The Saginaw district’s goal was to attract from 250 to 300 students to the Arthur Eddy school this year, a goal that was reached July 12. Enrollment is open to any student in the district but is focused on bringing in new students from outside the district. The school does not charge tuition. The district is committed to providing transportation from other schools in the county so students can attend Arthur Eddy. The school will require students to wear uniforms, Superintendent Gerald D. Dawkins recently told the Saginaw News.

MicroSociety skeptics include wary parents, but negative comments are few. The concerns most discussed are the seemingly high cost of the program, the supposed interference with conventional education, and the inequality that the program might create between students in MicroSociety and those attending traditional schools within the district. But MicroSociety seems to be weathering this minor criticism and prospering.

When Michigan’s charter school and “schools-of-choice” laws were debated, the idea that passage would increase competition and force school districts to improve or lose students—and therefore funding—was one of the major arguments in favor of the measures. Saginaw board of education members have made it clear that the purpose of this new school is to directly compete with charter and private schools.

“We need to respond to the needs of our parents and children and give them some options within the school district,” says Gerald D. Dawkins, Saginaw’s superintendent of schools.