On the morning of June 29, an early sun was rising on the Cerra Vista Park as a small group of school kids and chaperones gathered on the grass of the open field. Despite the heat, the excitement was palpable–a handful of students from the Chamberlain’s Children Center were to be launching handmade water rockets that morning, constructed with care and pride. Matt Morrison, a special education teacher at Chamberlain’s, led the group in preparing their rockets for flight.
“They each have a binder full of work they had to do on this project,” beamed Morrison, squinting into the morning. “Each kid is writing a chapter, and the book is going to be published on the iBook store.”
Morrison helped three students in total launch rockets into the blue. The rockets, made of 2-liter soda bottles and fitted with fins, were coated with layers of paint. The first to test their machine was a student named Michael,* who is about to enter the fourth grade. “Michael worked as the class banker,” Morrison explained. “The life skills portion of this project was huge. Each kid was responsible for the creation of their rocket in a very practical way. Michael had to apply for the job of Class Banker, make the grade requirements, then conduct a job interview with the [Chamberlain’s] principal. He had to sign a job contract and was given a breakdown of his salary. He made expense sheets for the construction of the rockets, and was responsible for making sure the other kids paid their bills. They each had rents to pay, on top of the $18,000 ‘loan’ they had to take out to pay for their rocket expenses, which they paid back to the ‘bank’ at an interest rate of 3.5 pecent. They had to file for a bank account, sign rental agreements for housing, apply for their own desk to work at. I even gave them personal checks to fill out when paying for expenses!”
Morrison flipped to a page in a comprehensive binder full of mock documents, where colorful blank checks appeared on perforated paper. “They learn so much that prepares them for life,” continued Morrison. “I don’t think many schools do that for young kids anymore.”
The lessons were well appreciated among the students. Thomas*, who is about to enter the eighth grade, applied for the job of Police Officer within the classroom.
“Oh yes, I enjoy being an officer,” grinned Thomas, standing in the grass. He launched his rocket a few minutes earlier, which reached a height of over 200 feet–the highest in the class. “If kids have bills to pay, I have to enforce the bills. If the kids don’t pay their bills, they get a fine. There was a couple of kids I had to give fines to."
The class currency system is tied to behavior. Good behavior earns the kids “money”–point system dollars that can be spent on tools they need for their rockets, or for any of their imaginary monthly expenses. Thomas is Morrison’s oldest student–or as the 13-year-old describes himself, “the most mature” of the Chamberlain’s class. When asked what his favorite part of the project was, Thomas replied “Probably launching [the rockets], but building was fun because you get to design the rocket how you want to.”
The children did a test-run rocket launch the previous Friday, and made adjustments to their rockets in the following week in order to achieve better results at the launch on the 29th. Thomas explained some of the changes he made to his rocket in the previous days: “I upgraded the fins, and twisted them to help with the aerodynamics." Thomas has made progress in Morrison’s class, and will be transitioning from the Non-Public School to the Public School Campus.
Morrison accepts students from grades K-8, most of whom live at Chamberlain’s Children Center and are part of the county’s foster care system. “The kids are very accustomed to moving to different schools a lot," Morrison said of his student body, “so to be able to stay in one place and do as much as they are doing for this project is really significant, because they end up falling behind a lot easier than other kids do. To see the work they’ve put into this is quite incredible.”
Morrison’s classroom makes up the Keith Thompson Non-Public School, based out of the Chamberlain’s Children Center. Morrison’s class on rockets is a 20-day Extended School program for children who’s needs qualify them for the class. “It’s all based on the needs of the student," Morrison noted. “The class is part of a continuum of services, so if a student has a need, they will be placed in my class”.
The kids meet for Morrison’s class every weekday from 8 a.m. until noon; the short days allow the children to focus solely on the rocket project for the entirety of the Extended School program. Wednesday was a clear summer day, ideal conditions for such scientific experimentation. After the rocket launch, the kids headed to the park's playground, where they had some time to relax before their summer vacation officially began. Even at play, the kids were excited about the culmination of their projects.
Elisia*, a 7-year-old girl about to enter the third grade, reported to BenitoLink: “My rocket went 224 feet high today, after I added curved fins. I made the fins bigger too. My teacher gave me the idea to make them curved.” When asked about her favorite part of the project, she answered: “Putting more fins back on my rocket. Before I only had two little fins and now I have three.” When asked if she was excited for summer vacation, Elisia responded: “No, I’m excited for school! I like school. We start regular school in August. But we’re on summer break down, so one good thing is that we get to sleep in all week long."
*Names may have been changed to protect the identity of the students.