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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Reality Town: Giving real-life scenarios to Butler Middle students through simulation

Jun 03, 2024 01:33PM ● By Julie Slama

As part of Reality Town, Butler eighth-grade students learn how to write checks as they donate money to various charities. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Butler eighth-grader Kai Smith got “arrested” at middle school this spring.

In the simulation of real life, the school resource officer didn’t pull him over for running or “speeding,” but for “driving” without insurance.

“I was on my way to get it, but I got arrested,” Kai said. “I’m technically a cop, but if you do anything wrong, you still pay the price.”

It was a $100 Reality Town ticket, but a lesson learned for the FBI agent who wore a homemade badge and was dressed in a $25 suit he purchased from Deseret Industries.

Kai chose his career to portray Agent William Mulder of the now defunct television supernatural series, “The X-Files.”

“I watched that show and it sounded cool to be an FBI agent today—and you make pretty good money,” he said. “It’s a career choice along with YouTube content creation.”

In Reality Town, the FBI agent’s salary is $5,000. Enough for Kai to purchase a car, house, clothes, utilities, a pet goldfish for $2—and his insurance for $200.

“There’s some actual realness in this,” he said.

He was one of hundreds of Butler eighth graders rotating through booths getting essentials—housing, transportation, medical and dental insurance, kids’ care, property tax—and some non-essentials, such as entertainment and pets. There was financial counseling, secondary career options and others to turn to navigate the reality of their futures.

Each student could choose a career with a built-in monthly income. They randomly were assigned a spouse and family.

When eighth-grader Haden Diana first got money from the bank, the first stop was donations.

“I donated to the homeless shelter, just to be nice,” Haden said. “My next stop is insurance and then get a place to live. It’s good to learn how to do all this stuff.”

Haden’s classmate, Lucian Farnsworth, had bought a house and paid property tax—“first time ever.”

“It wasn’t too much money. It was $3.75 per month of my engineer’s salary of $4,468,” Lucian said. “I’m going over to home improvement next.”

Eighth-grader Alicia Menchaca chose to be a physical therapist.

“As an ice skater, I’m having physical therapy right now to strengthen my knee so it’s a career I’m interested in,” she said. “It’s cool to help athletes and people out, and to have a feeling like what life is going to be like.”

For Alicia, it meant having a spouse and two kids.

“He stays at home, so I don’t need to pay for child care, but we’ll be getting a house, car and car insurance on my salary,” she said. 

Alicia was prepared, thanks to counselors and teachers who prepped students beforehand.

“They told us to bring coupons for discounts and if we knew another language, we would get more money so that’s what I’ve done,” she said.

Those are some of the tweaks that Butler, under school counselor Tatiana Grant, has done to make it fit the student body.

“These kids are learning finances, so they understand the importance of having a job and budgeting and having the experience before they’re older and they have to figure it out on their own,” she said. “This way they can see how life is and start to think about their future and make choices now.”

The notes from family saying they will take care of their students’ children, or coupons for 10% off groceries contribute to learning how to navigate costs.

“Everything adds up, so they learn how to start saving,” Grant said. “We also give them $100 in reality money if they’re in one of our Spanish or French classes that we offer here, or if they already speak a foreign language and if they visit the CTEC booth to learn more about classes offered there.”

It’s the 10th year Butler has offered the program and it’s not just a few hours of simulation. Grant said students learn in math class how to write and balance a checkbook. In English class, they create a resume on Google Docs so they can keep it updated with work experience, academic achievement, volunteer opportunities, career interest, extracurricular activities and computer knowledge.

“They’re starting to think about their future,” she said. “I’ve had one student that said she felt sorry for her parents, because this was hard. I’ve had a student who said, ‘I am going to be so much better about asking for only necessary things’ because he was blown away how quickly the money goes away. I’ve had people say they need to rethink their careers because they don’t make enough. I’ve had people that said, ‘I didn’t understand how hard it is to have a second and third job.’”

Brighton school counselor Amy Mena was one of 60 volunteers that day. 

“This is a reality check. They learn they need to have good grades to get better careers so we love the reality it carries over to high school to focus on their academics,” she said.

Many parents were helping at the stations, explaining to students their options of what they could purchase and even giving advice on watching their balances in their checkbooks.

Parent Phoenix Gatrell has helped for three years.

“It’s fun to talk to the students and help them understand how to make choices in life within their budget and have a concept of reality,” she said.

Ruth Bartlett’s son chose to be an animal trainer as his career and is supporting a spouse and a 6 year old.

“He’s excited and is very proud of himself,” she said. “He’s special needs so I don’t know if how much he will be able to do in his life, but it’s fun for him to imagine it and do this. He’s been talking about it since they came into his class. He has learned about his wants versus his needs. He has understanding he can’t spend money if he doesn’t have money.”

Cyprus Credit Union Assistant Branch Manager Heather Barnes is the mother of an eighth  grader, who is a single father and earns $3,000 as a cancer researcher.

“I hope my son learns the seriousness about budgeting,” she said. “While this is fun, he is going to have to realize his responsibilities once he steps out into that world. This is a need for all the kids.”

She and other colleagues talked to students about their checking accounts and how it works, as well as about savings, withdrawals and saving money for later. 

“I even had one young man asking me if it’s a good idea to have money leftover so he could save it for retirement,” she said.

Butler school psychologist Ben White is a supporter of Reality Town.

“I’m a big fan of any opportunity that lets students do real-world learning; these are the things that are memorable for kids and where they learn the most,” he said. “It’s good when you’re a kid to be able to live as a kid, but also this allows some sense of perspective on life and how your parents live and what sacrifices are made. It provides perspective to make thoughtful decisions about what are we going to do when we graduate from high school and what do we want to pursue as a career and as a lifestyle.” λ