CHAMPAIGN — It may seem a little strange to think of running an elementary school as its own small society, but that's exactly what's happening at Stratton Elementary as it becomes a magnet school.
Next year, Stratton Elementary School will become Stratton Leadership and Microsociety Magnet School. As they participate in the program, students will learn real-life lessons about working, finding jobs, managing money and acting as good citizens.
The Champaign school district received a $5 million grant last fall that will pay for this magnet program as well as programs at Garden Hills and Booker T. Washington elementaries for three years.
Early application for the three magnet schools begins Monday and extends through Feb. 17.
Parents of kindergartners can also apply for the magnet schools during kindergarten registration, scheduled from March 1-30.
Students will learn financial literacy and responsibility as they start their own businesses and work at service agencies throughout the school.
But the program isn't just about the money students will earn and spend each day. They'll also be learning and understanding what it means to be a citizen, using the same core curriculum they study now.
"The focus is to bring the basics of elementary school and give students a vehicle to use those basics in every life situations," said Charles West, magnet site facilitator at Stratton.
Stratton's program will have a post office, peacekeepers who keep an eye on transportation through the hallways, a legislative system, a judicial system and even a bank or credit union. Businesses may include museums, galleries or even a mini-university, where students teach in their areas of expertise. West said he's excited about the idea that bilingual students may be able to teach classes in their native languages.
Through these jobs, students will work according to their own interests for the last hour of each day. Teachers will help, but students will be responsible for leading themselves.
They'll collaborate across grade levels, and students in the school's gifted program will work with those who aren't, said Mary Ciaccio, curriculum integration specialist for the magnet school focus.
"It builds community," she said.
All jobs will relate back to literacy, which is one of the school's main focuses. One day each week, students will write in reflection journals about what they're learning.
And, while the core curriculum in the school will not change, Ciaccio and West said students will be able to use academic information they learn in class immediately. As the program progresses, teachers will learn more how to combine class work with information students need to be successful in their jobs.
"Integrating (means) everything we teach will become more meaningful," Ciaccio said, and research shows students test scores go up as a result.
Along with a strong academic component, ventures and agencies will all have a community focus. Each business proposal must include a way to give back to either their mini society or the larger community. West said he hopes a common refrain will be: "It's not about me, it's about we."
He expects they'll tackle the challenges in society today.
"Our population is the perfect think tank for solving problems in communities where there's a huge population of socioeconomic inequality," West said.
Stratton has about 470 students, about 80 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch. He expects those numbers to balance out a bit as the school becomes a magnet.
The magnet focus was recently discussed at Stratton's PTA meeting, as parents asked about how to make sure students didn't become focused on the money they'll make and spend, and about how the program will help their students focus on global and environmental issues.
To address the question about finances, fifth-grade teacher Anne Crossetti told parents her students discussed among themselves about whether they should take a job because it pays well or because they love it. The topic came up on its own, and she didn't contribute much to the conversation, she said.
West said the critical thinking involved in the magnet focus will help students learn about how they fit.
"It's not who's making the most and not what your role is, but the recognition that everyone can have a role," he said.
In Jamila Appleby's second-grade class Wednesday, students acted out the popular book, "The Rainbow Fish," taking time afterward to discuss who the book's leaders are and how every student can fit in, even if he or she looks different than others.
West said though some people are skeptical about whether students can support their own society, he knows it's possible.
"When they're having conversations like that, how could they not?" he said.
As they learn, they'll also partner with community business people and those who work at local nonprofits.
Stratton already has an agreement with Illinois Public Media, the umbrella organization of WILL TV, radio and online, which will help students with their own TV studio in the school.
Kimberlie Kranich, Illinois Public Media's director of community engagement, said its relationship with the school district started with a youth media workshop.
"Media being any important part of any society, we were looked to as a natural ally with them," Kranich said. "We were happy to support them in this way."
The agency will train students on professional-grade cameras in Stratton's studio. It will also help build a website where students can showcase their work and community members can keep up with what the school's society is up to. It will also provide training for teachers and take advantage of students' status as "digital natives," Kranich said.
She said Illinois Public Media's five-member team is excited about working with Stratton students.
"I think this is a sign of other organizations trying to work with schools and schools wanting to work with other organizations," she said. "They're all our kids. Why not match those organizations' strengths together in the name of growth for our kids?"
West said he's also looking for other community experts to partner with students who may be mirroring their talents in Stratton's own community.
When school starts next year, West said, he hopes the school will actually feature storefronts and the appearance of a miniature community.
For now, though, students are learning about citizenship and community, economy and government. They'll soon begin a constitutional convention and will ratify the document that will govern them.
Stratton Principal Stephanie Eckels said training earlier this year had staff members laughing and having fun.
"I told them at the end of the day, if this is just a piece of what the students feel like at the end of the day, then we've done our job," she said.
West said even though the program seems unusual, it will provide students a way to navigate their futures.
"It's crazy to think that teaching kids real, applicable schools is out-of-the box thinking," he said.
Magnet registration open
Those interested in applying to Champaign's magnet elementary schools during early registration should visit the district's Family Information Center, 1103 N. Neil St., C, in the historic Columbia School building. Magnet school application — for Stratton, Garden Hills and Booker T. Washington STEM Academy — is open and runs until Feb. 17.
Parents of new kindergartners and transfers from first through fifth grades may apply, said school district spokeswoman Lynn Peisker.
Parents should bring proof of Champaign school district residency. If they're new to the district, they should also bring a certified birth certificate, she said.
Parents will list the schools they are interested in, among the magnet schools, she said. Students now at Stratton will remain there next year, unless they choose to enter the registration process for another magnet school, or request a transfer during the transfer period in May, Peisker said.
This story appeared in print on Jan. 22.