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A Field Trip With A Twist: These Fifth Graders Run Their Own Town

Bill Zeeble
Emily Fishetti, "bank president," wearing the hat, processes checks from Jay Thompson, who runs the sports shop in Enterprise City.

Enterprise City, population 100, is a tiny North Texas town where the government and every business are run by students.

The kids get paid too, even though they’re underage. And it’s legal. The unconventional Enterprise City was founded for very conventional reasons -- to teach students civics and financial literacy.

As Richardson employees are busy trimming trees outside in Canyon Creek Park. inside Canyon Creek Elementary, fake city workers care for their own park in Enterprise City.

“You cannot walk on the green grass; you will get a ticket.”

OK, it’s not really grass, just green carpet. In this large, converted classroom,  Enterprise City bustles with businesses you can find just about anywhere. There’s a bank, a print shop, newspaper, arcade, and more.

The tiny town was founded in 1985 by the Richardson school district so kids could get a hands-on taste of government and business. Today’s fifth graders, from Lakeside Elementary in Coppell, run everything attracting kids from across North Texas.

“My name is Aman Chiniwala. I am the accountant at the web page design shop."

"My name is Emily Fishetti. My first choice was bank president and they gave me bank president.”

Enterprise City boasts full employment. No jobless or homeless here. Every student also gets paid - albeit in funny money - but they can spend it on little things they can actually take home. Store owners hawk everything from gag gifts at the joke shop to photos and t-shirts.

“Come to the joke shop, don’t go away. Photo shop. T-shirt shop…” the kids yell from their stores.

Today, 11-year-old Jay Thompson is running the sports shop. He’s just finished signing employee pay checks. In real life, he’s never written a check, let alone endorsed one.

“I give it to them, they go to the bank, deposit it, and then they can go buy something,” Jay says. “ This teaches us how to sign checks in the real world so we know later on in our life.”

“Real world” is a term used a lot around here. Jay’s father, Dan Thompson, uses it. The Lakeside teacher has brought seven previous classes to Enterprise City.

“There are so many kids that think they know what their parents actually do with their money and when they’re actually put in that position they realize ‘oh it doesn’t just grow on trees.’ Maybe it actually is limited,” Thompson says. “There is accountability here that, just like in the real world, if they do actually overspend, they do have to return some of the items.”

At Enterprise City, some kids learn that lesson the hard way by spending more than they’ve earned.  Laura Ewing, president of the Texas Council on Economic Education, says it’s a lesson best learned young.

“We as a nation do not understand financial literacy,” Ewing says. “People buying homes they had no business buying. And so we needed financial literacy education. These are concepts and skills that students can learn at an early age.”

Ewing’s group advocated for more financial education in schools and lawmakers approved it in 2012. Texas now has financial literacy classes in every kindergarten through eighth grade math class. As a result, Enterprise City’s getting added interest.

Back in the student run town, there’s a concern at the jewelry shop. Customers are looking, but not buying. So the frustrated owner does what many shop owners do –  buys a radio spot. Enterprise City’s station blares nearly non-stop.

A student with a microphone sings to the tune of "Jingle Bells." “Jewelry shop, jewelry shop, buy your gifts right here; you can buy all sorts of things like bracelets and some rings.”

“We wanted something that would stick in people’s heads,” says 10-year-old Farah Kader, the jewelry shop owner.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Aman (pink shirt) is about to spend some hard-earned money in Farah's jewelry shop.

“Whenever you sing Christmas carols,” says Farah, “it like, gets stuck in your head. So we chose it to the tune of 'Jingle Bells.'”

Farah’s young, but already likes business. 

“I kind of want to be a CEO of my own company,” she says. “Like Steve Jobs, because everybody’s into technology now and I think that would be a good business because you make a lot of sales.”

For Farah and these enterprising fifth grade citizens of Enterprise City, this one-day field trip may be more than a fun day out of class. It may inspire her and her classmates to be their generation’s business and civic leaders. Or perhaps the next Steve Jobs. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.