Sam Houston Elementary’s fictional town comes to life for students

Pre-K students cash in at the IBC Bank during a banking lesson as part of the Minitropolis at Sam Houston Elementary School on Wednesday in McAllen. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor

McALLEN — For a fictional town, Houstonville was awfully busy Wednesday morning.

Held at Sam Houston Elementary in South McAllen, Houstonville is part of McAllen ISD’s Minitropolis program, which partners elementary schools with local businesses to provide students realistic financial and civic experience in a creative setting.

Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor

Minitropolis is now in its 23rd year at Sam Houston and is held in six McAllen ISD schools.

For about an hour a week for the rest of the school year, classrooms in Houston Elementary will put up signs and stock their shelves with wares. Students will work as store clerks and postal carriers and bank tellers, city councilmembers and newspaper hawkers and police officers, exchanging faux currency for stuff donated by local businesses and parents.

Wednesday was Houstonville’s grand opening, and many McAllen business leaders who support the program were invited to see it in action.

Michael Vasquez, Houstonville’s 10-year-old police captain, paced around the school’s crowded main corridor, politely asking guests if they needed directions and casually scanning the crowd.

“I’m patrolling to make sure no one runs,” Vasquez said. “Because last time someone was running we saw them trip, and we don’t want them getting hurt, so now we’re patrolling the hallways.”

Although Houstonville’s highest ranking officer doesn’t get a service weapon or handcuffs, he takes his job very seriously, as do most of the kids at Sam Houston.

One girl in Houstonville’s Salvation Army (complete with donated toys and clothes for sale) was leaning over a binder holding timesheets filled out by the shop’s elementary-aged employees.

“I’m doing payroll,” the girl nonchalantly told a visitor who was peering over her shoulder.

Principal Debra Thomas, who has seen the number of the program’s business sponsors grow from eight to 21 in her nine years with the school, says that by taking their roles so seriously, students learn valuable life lessons.

Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor

“I really feel that it’s important for our students to learn about being a citizen,” she said. “Often

it gets ignored because we’re always worried about state assessments and all this other stuff, but through this the students are learning how to be responsible, how to study for tests, how to broaden their minds and think about what the future’s gonna be like. They learn the importance of the dollar.”

Economics plays a central role in the program. Students are paid for their labor, and even start their own bank accounts, with help from IBC Bank. Thomas says that her students’ financial savvy stands in stark contrast to the economic know-how of other kids their age.

“The biggest thing that they learn at Sam Houston is financial literacy. You’ll find that you get into middle school, high school, you’ll have some students that don’t know anything about financial literacy, even people in college,” she said. “Our students are leaving Sam Houston knowing about saving earnings, about the difference between wants and needs, and about making their cash stretch. It’s about learning everyday life here.”

Houstonville even levies taxes on its young citizens.

“Our students pay taxes every six weeks, $5 in cougar cash, so they know that a portion of their salary is gonna go toward taxes,” Thomas said. “And our IRS is run by our kindergarteners; how many kindergarteners even know about the IRS?”

According to Thomas, the students’ devotion to the program shows through in their behavior.

Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor

“Our students are walking around freely. I have pre-kinder students walking around, I have kinder students walking around. That doesn’t happen in most elementaries,” she said. “Our students know where they’re going, they know what they’re doing, they know how to behave. There is no misbehavior at Sam Houston. It is very seldom that I’ll see a referral on my desk, because they know they could lose Minitropolis.”

That behavior, Thomas says, translates into academic results.

“We are the highest ranking school in the district with attendance, because our students want to go to school,” Thomas said. “They get paid, in cougar cash, to go to school every day. It behooves them to be here each and every day, and everyone knows that research says if you come to school every day, your education will be fruitful. You will do better in education. So, with an attendance rate of 98 percent, our students are here and they’re able to learn.”

If the students’ enthusiasm for Houstonville Wednesday is any indication, attendance should be staying high for the foreseeable future.