Kindergartners lined up on one side of a hallway at The Dufrocq School on Feb. 24, talking about the Smurfs and movies. On the other side, a fourth-grade student asked questions to spur the conversation, giving permission for the students to speak by pointing at their raised hands.
“They’re conducting a business meeting,” Noi Mills, a magnet lead teacher at the school, explained, with no hint of amusement on her face.
Business meetings are going on all over the elementary school every Tuesday afternoon from 2:10 p.m. to 3 p.m., when students at Dufrocq make plans for their student-run community, also known as a microsociety, that opens for business most Wednesdays and Thursdays at the same time.
“It’s serious business to them, too,” said Mills, who provides guidance for the community, called Crawfish Bayou, at Dufrocq.
“They want to make money,” she adds, with a firm nod.
Students apply and interview for jobs, work and get paid — Tuesday is also pay day — and rotate days as both employees and consumers in the society each week.
In addition to businesses, Crawfish Bayou has a currency, a constitution, a president and congress, post office, radio and television stations, a bank, community service organizations and, newly opened on Feb. 25, a movie theater called Crawfish Cinema.
The kindergartners explain that their former venture, a photography business, didn’t do well. So, they took Tuesday to revamp and decide how to organize the theater, which will have a 15-seat capacity — one of the many decisions the students had to make.
“Yes, it is possible to go bankrupt,” Mills said. Economics comes in every Tuesday, she said, when students look at their revenue and expenses for the week, research and create inventory, and adjust their strategies accordingly.
Teachers act as facilitators for individual businesses, said June Lavergne, who facilitates Louisiana Lagniappe, a store that sells craft items with a Louisiana-centered theme — including books authored, illustrated and bound by students.
“Seriously. There is a printing press,” said Mills, pointing to a table of students making books with a binder.
Fifth-grader Olivia Mack is one of the managers at Louisiana Lagniappe and pauses from her employee meeting to explain the process.
Today, her workforce of 19 students is replenishing inventory.
“We were out of books, so we’re making some more. That table over there will probably make bookmarks,” Mack said, pointing to another group of employees in the back.
She’s been working at the store for three years now, she said, and already has made her mark as a leader at the school, Mills added.
“This young lady saw a problem with bullying among students and created an anti-bullying PowerPoint presentation for the first through third grades,” Mills said.
That’s exactly the kind of result she’s hoping to accomplish with the microsociety. When students interact with one another on this level, she said, they have to learn to recognize and solve problems before they spread into the community.
“We want them to learn how to be good citizens,” she said. They vote, they write business plans, they have dress codes set by their employers. “They really get into it,” she said.
But the teachable moments go far beyond community spirit, appropriate dress and cooperation. While Mack finishes the meeting, other students line up at the payroll desk — also Lavergne’s desk, on a normal day — to get their pay.
As they take their salary for the week, they also have to calculate 10 percent of their gross pay and take it to the Internal Revenue Service/Treasury Department.
“It doesn’t get much more realistic than that,” Mills said.
Mills, herself, facilitated a fitness center that was fairly popular among students before she took on her new role as lead teacher. One important element of the program is inclusion of Common Core curriculum in each of the business ventures.
Students must go through a citizenship process, too, in order to become a part of the community, in which they learn the Crawfish Bayou bill of rights, its history and constitution. They learn how to vote in elections, where to file complaints, how to use the post office and what the department of public works does. They get employment counseling and can be matched at the Crawfish Bayou staffing service if they aren’t sure what they want to do.
There’s a garden with real produce they can buy and take home, when available. There’s a university with tutoring available for students who may be struggling with their studies in the real world, staffed by older students. There’s even a management training program and a business licensing department.
Dominion Hunter went through management training and, for the second time this year, is managing a staff of 23 peacekeepers, who are stationed at various spots around the society and have the power to issue citations for violations of the laws voted on by the community.
The office operates in part on fines collected for those violations, Hunter said, but this year, he and his force decided to start handing out “Caught Being Good” certificates, as well. Three of these can be traded in for five crawfish bucks, and it has done a lot to improve his society, he said.
Occasionally, he’ll have problems with a student who rips up tickets, but, he said, each citation has a carbon copy filed at peacekeeper headquarters, and if the tickets aren’t paid, they can issue warrants and take the offenders to court, where all disputes are handled.
The society takes a lot of effort on everyone’s part, Mills said, and it costs money to run. It started off with a grant, but when that ran out, community partners took up the cause, both monetarily and with practical support, pulling out a binder with a list two pages long of all the businesses around the school that help.
“Capital One just adopted our school, and they will be a good resource for our bank,” Mills said.
Most importantly, though, she said, is the benefit it brings to the classrooms.
“We’ve had increases in our science and social studies test scores since the society started (in 2011), so we’re thrilled about that,” she said. “Plus, early checkouts on Crawfish Bayou days are down to practically nothing,” she said with a laugh.