Port Houston ES students learn big life lessons in Dolphinville

At most schools, running in the halls is not permitted, but in Dolphinville – a student-run community within the walls of HISD’s Port Houston Elementary School – running is like speeding, and it can have costly consequences. 

“If a student is caught running by one of our Crimestoppers, then they are issued a speeding ticket,” said Port Houston Assistant Principal Shelby Smith. “And if you don’t pay off your ticket, you only get a portion of your paycheck.” 

Those “paychecks” help drive the Dolphinville community, which is part of IBC Bank’s Minitropolis Program, and is the first of its kind in Houston. The East Houston minitropolis mirrors a functioning, real-life city, complete with its own bank, grocery store and, of course, police department.  

For an hour every Friday, Port Houston students earn wages and shop in the Dolphinville Minitropolis. Students earn Dolphin Dollars for attendance, no tardies and working in the mini-community. Each grade level takes on a vendor role, which includes a bookstore, the Port Fit Gym, a post office, a movie theater, and an IBC Bank. Half of the students work and manage their operation while the rest shop.   

“Everything in Dolphinville is student-run,” said Port Houston Principal Victor Garcia. “They are like mini-adults, and we stand back and let them run the show.” 

Garcia, who was inspired by his own elementary school experience in HISD, wanted to create something new and fresh for his students. And, according to him, the IBC Minitropolis program offered the perfect solution.  

“I remember everything I did in elementary school was fun … and I wanted to bring that experience to Port Houston,” said Garcia. “When I was offered the chance to bring the IBC minitropolis program to Port Houston, I jumped on it.”  

In early 2018, Garcia, Smith and a Port Houston teacher representative traveled to McAllen, where the Minitropolis program is implemented districtwide, and participated in a school showcase at Sam Houston Elementary School’s Houstonville. There they learned exactly what it takes to successfully implement the program. According to Garcia, the key to a successful, sustainable minitropolis is a strong local business partnership. 

“When you are a small school, you start thinking about budget, how much will everything cost, and the partnership idea worked perfectly for our school,” he said. “When I started here last year, my goal was to bring the community back into the school, which included former business partners. It was a good fit for us – especially when you have partnerships that invest in the program.” 

Building upon the lessons learned in McAllen, Port Houston ES staff planned for about four months before opening the program in August of last year. But, Dolphinville wasn’t an immediate operation. It was a step-by-step gradual release. 

“We took our time to learn about it as a school, as a community, together,” Garcia said. “We used a very structured timeline.” 

Every Friday, staff reserved time dedicated to Dolphinville. The first Friday was an introduction of the program, the next Friday focused on how to be a successful Dolphinville citizen, and then how a successful minitropolis operates. The school even held a Dolphinville job fair, where students could apply for jobs, and the following Friday they interviewed for those jobs with an IBC Bank volunteer.  

Dolphinville officially opened its doors in December of last year, and the program, despite a few small hiccups, has been running smoothly ever since. Throughout the last semester, Port Houston students have not only learned financial literacy, they have also learned the power of teamwork, and leadership, as well as real-life problem solving. There has also been, according to Garcia, a shift in culture on campus.  

“When I first started here, it felt like kids were coming to school because they had to. There was no excitement,” he said. “We wanted to create this memorable learning experience for them, and now, because of Dolphinville, our students are excited to come to school.”