Students get taste of real world at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Modesto

naustin@modbee.comDecember 10, 2013 

— Sixth-graders pay taxes in Juan Vargas’ class. They can buy low-cost health insurance, too, or “roll the dice” by not having it. They earn salaries, pay rent, pass laws and tempt tourists to buy their merchandise.

At desks along Starbucks Drive, Sesame Street and Wrong Way, the Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School students check their checking balances at Juanolulu City Bank and consider if a loan and its interest should interest them.

The city project started as an outgrowth of the sixth-grade study of ancient civilizations in Vargas’ room about 15 years ago. Some time after the study of Egypt’s cultivation along the Nile and India’s Golden Age, the class spends nine weeks managing a modern civilization. This year’s students named their city Juanolulu. Past city names have included Las Vargas and San Juancisco.

“We work in studying government, trade, economics. There’s leadership. We do a lot of conflict resolution,” Vargas said. That last primarily involves the City Council, helping members work through different viewpoints and look at long-term consequences. The duly appointed police chief has never had to be called.

The council’s most recent law, passed after intense discussion, mandates that new merchandise can be advertised only by the city pawn shop, said City Clerk Elizabeth Nancett.

This is a strong leadership year, Vargas said. In the past, he’s had mayors try to quit. “It’s a campaign. Sometimes it’s a popularity contest and it doesn’t work out so well,” he said. Either way, he added, “They learn to manage difficult situations. It’s problem-solving.”

Director of Waste Management Clair Thompson sits with the class trash can in front of her poster about recycling. She earns a salary of 25 Juanolulu dollars a week for clearing the classroom of trash each day, using it to pay her rent and buy things. “I get mostly cool stuff like badges, race cars – stuff like that,” Clair said.

She pays rent to the resident land magnate, Mario Jauregui. “I own half the city,” Mario said matter-of-factly, pointing to properties along each of the four main streets. He sagely borrowed $500 from the bank to invest in real estate, a loan he paid back in a week, he said. Mario said he had $1,700 in the bank and $1,500 in his pocket as of Thursday. He worries he will lose a lot of it come tax time.

By class vote, the tax is a flat 30 percent, enough to cover all the expenses students voted in for their city. “If they raise a salary, they have to raise taxes to pay for it,” Vargas said.

That will be a big bite for Mario. “I was giving money away, buying random stuff,” he said, but the rent receipts just keep pouring in.

At the other end of the income spectrum, some consumer counseling was needed for one student who spent more than he had. Sometimes the 11- and 12-year-olds will choose to bail out a friend, Vargas said. “I leave it up to the students. If someone is struggling financially, sometimes they’ll loan him money or just give the money. They build empathy,” he said.

Thursday afternoon, capitalism was in full swing as “tourists” from Joni Mitchell’s third-grade class visited, pumping a collective $400 of good-student bucks into Juanolulu cash drawers.

Third-grader Sofi Lanzas, deep in negotiations over a Halloween-style box, said she enjoyed the visit while balancing her other purchases.

Mayor Grace Mathias took a break from City Council business to tend to her retail establishment with partners Jacqueline Hernandez and Kayla Armendariz. The trio sold “GooMoo,” a slimy squeeze they made in many colors and placed in plastic cups – with or without glitter.

Thrift store owner Nick Kiesel sold baseball caps for three classroom dollars. At the city Starbucks, Isabella Naraghi sold trademark cups brimming with imagination instead of lattes. She said she’d sold out of the genuine gift cards.

Others sold Hot Wheels, candy, glow-in-the-dark stickers and sundry bits of homemade crafts. Young artist Sarah Grimes sold drawings – up to 15 classroom dollars for a really detailed one. After all, she has rent to cover.

If she can’t pay, however, she faces a financial management session, not eviction. “There’s no homelessness. I’m not shooting for Utopia, but we don’t have that,” Vargas said with a laugh.

Bad things can happen, however, if a student draws a bad news “Life Card.” To protect themselves, Juanoluluans can choose to pay $10 a week for insurance through the Vargas Insurance Co., with its slogan of “A friend in need.” The one-size-fits-all policy covers liability, medical and property damage with a 10 percent deductible.

In the end, which comes this week, students will be graded on their civic participation and record-keeping, Vargas said, not on how much they have in their bank accounts.

One thing they will have in their ledger, however, is a far greater understanding of being citizens, said Victoria Gonsalves, school director of advancement. “They don’t even realize what they’re learning,” she said.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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