If you grew up in suburban Kansas City in the 1990s, you probably remember taking a field trip to Exchange City or the Blue Springs School of Economics, simulated towns run entirely by 10-year-olds.
Exchange City closed years ago, but the Blue Springs program still teaches 12,000 elementary students a year about money, scarcity, opportunity cost and supply and demand. And next month, the School of Economics is opening a new downtown location in the UMB bank building.
“Everybody wants to be mayor,” said Sue-Ann Johnson, director of the School of Economics. “The mayor has the fun job of collecting taxes.”
Here’s how it works: kids fill out job applications and interview for a position. During their field trip, they earn money working as bankers, shopkeepers and cooks. (There’s even a health inspector to make sure all the food that’s prepared is safe to eat.)
Once they’ve cashed their paychecks, the kids get to go out and spend their hard-earned dollars at various stores around the town.
“Dirt cups are the top food item. It’s smashed up Oreo cookies with chocolate pudding and Cool Whip and a gummy worm,” Johnson said. “It looks like dirt, but it tastes like chocolate.”
UMB donated the space to improve access to financial literacy education for students living in the urban core.
“Many of these kids come from a family that’s unbanked, and we want them to get comfortable coming into a bank and talking about finances,” said Johnson, her hand resting on a kid-height teller counter in the replica UMB bank lobby.
Jen Houston, the community relations manager at UMB, said the School of Economics landed on the bank’s radar through a program that gives employees paid time off to volunteer at a nonprofit of their choice. Especially for employees who grew up in Kansas City in the 1990s, the School of Economics was a popular choice.
(Houston’s job when she went to Exchange City was the judge, which doesn’t have an equivalent position at the School of Economics. “But it was an awesome experience that I remember fondly,” she said.)
“Financial education is a huge need in our community,” Houston said. “Another key part of the project that UMB was really excited about was making this represent the local community. We worked with the Kansas City Art Institute and other Kansas City artists to give this the look and feel of various parts of our city.”
Even the stairwells are bright and cheerful. As students ascend to the third floor, they’ll see murals by Kansas City artist Antonio Burton showing an emoji going to work, worrying about money and learning to save.
Johnson said the School of Economics will be able to serve an additional 10,000 students each year at the downtown campus. She’s already scheduled field trips for schools that weren’t able to travel to Blue Springs, including the Kansas City Public Schools and several charter schools.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.