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Students make cents out of saving pennies


The lowly penny is cold, hard cash to the children of Charles Carroll Elementary School. They counted their millionth penny Friday in a two-year drive to raise $10,000 for computer and media center equipment.

Along the way, they learned lessons about thrift, math, organization and logistics.

Sorting, counting and storing a million pennies turned out to be more complicated than anyone imagined, said Jane Kacmarski, the language arts specialist who proposed the project after reading about a Florida school that had done it.

"I didn't think 1 million pennies was that much," said Kyle Beall, 9, a fourth-grader.

"But when I started looking at all these pennies, I found out TC million is a lot. We just brought in the pennies from the house."

When the drive started, Kyle was a second-grader. The Maryland governor was William Donald Schaefer, who visited the school in April 1994 and brought a red wagon.

In it were 22,000 pennies -- 5,000 from him and the rest from state workers, many of whom accompanied him to the small school in Silver Run, north of Westminster.

Children wrote to the governor, President Clinton and movie and rock stars, and got pennies and some autographed glossies from actor Christian Slater, singer Debbie Gibson and others.

Mr. Schaefer said the fund drive caught his attention because it was "a little innovative, a little different."

"All the kids wrote letters," Ms. Kacmarski said. "It gave our children an authentic purpose for their reading and writing, and we do like to teach our children there is a purpose in learning."

Although the penny project might sound more like something a math teacher would devise, Ms. Kacmarski said it provided opportunities across the curriculum and was an opportunity for children to work in groups.

In math classes, students learned counting to more complex calculations of weight, amount and value. In social studies classes, they talk about the occasional foreign penny that shows up in the donation cans. One came from Australia and several have turned up from the Caribbean.

Combined with lessons

Science lessons have included the properties of copper and figuring the weight of each 5-gallon jug of pennies. (It's 155 pounds.)

Fifth-graders studied whether the floor in the library could hold the weight of 1 million pennies in 40 jugs, and, if so, how the weight should be distributed.

In January, though, a school facilities administrator visited the building, saw the floor sagging and ordered the jugs moved to a more secure location.

"The floor was starting to go like this," Ms. Kacmarski said of the school library, waving her hand in a dipping motion.

Students of all ages shared the task of counting the penny donations into bins and eventually put them into five-gallon water jugs that hold 25,000 pennies each.

Donation cans that were placed in businesses throughout the county and in classrooms at Charles Carroll turned up with quarters, dimes, nickels and even dollar bills.

Children as young as kindergarten learned to "look for Lincoln's house" on the tail side of the penny. If they didn't find the house, they knew it was a "wheat" penny, which is worth more.

Wheat pennies, along with Canadian pennies and other foreign currency, were separated out. Ms. Kacmarski took them to banks to convert them to pennies.

The school still has one more problem to solve: how to get the pennies from their current location -- undisclosed for security reasons -- to the Federal Reserve. Westminster Bank and Trust will take the pennies to the Federal Reserve, but the method and date are undetermined, Ms. Kacmarski said.

The children aren't the only ones who learned, she said. She used to leave pennies where she found them, but now she picks them up. It doesn't matter if the tail is up, which some people say is bad luck.

'Look what you can do'

"People walk right over a penny without thinking of picking it up, and look what you can do with pennies," Ms. Kacmarski said.

Last year, a student gave her a gift of tiny penny pierced earrings. She wore them Friday.

The penny collection has been a whole-school project for two years. The girl who got to put the first penny in a jug now is in seventh grade.

"We want to have a celebration where everyone is invited back," Ms. Kacmarski said.

Including Mr. Schaefer, she said, when she finds out how to get in touch with him.

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