Schools of­fer­ing cash re­wards to keep stu­dents in class

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Stu­dents who go to class ev­ery day may get more than just an ed­u­ca­tion.

To com­bat tru­ancy, many school districts are of­fer­ing iPods, lap­tops and even cars in ex­change for per­fect at­ten­dance.

The Cam­den, N.J., school sys­tem will pay some stu­dents $100 if they sign a pledge promis­ing not to skip school and at­tend work­shops on con­flict res­o­lu­tion and other top­ics. The pro­gram is funded through a state grant, and the money must be spent by Sept. 30.

Cal­i­for­nia’s Santa Ana Uni­fied School District part­ners with a lo­cal auto deal­er­ship and holds a car raf­fle at the end of ev­ery aca­demic term. Stu­dents who made it to ev­ery class for the 180-day school year are eli­gi­ble to win.

“It’s caught on. Our at­ten­dance rates have im­proved,” Santa Ana spokes­woman An­gela Bur­rell told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “A lot of peo­ple are do­ing cre­ative things” to de­crease tru- ancy rates.

Other raf­fle prizes in Santa Ana in­clude iPods, movie tick­ets and other items, Ms. Bur­rell said. Sim­i­lar pro­grams have been im­ple­mented in districts in Wy­oming, Ari­zona, Michi­gan and else­where.

Ed­u­ca­tion spe­cial­ists see value in such ef­forts. Skip­ping school is of­ten the pre­cur­sor to drop­ping out, and schools are wise to try and reach stu­dents be­fore they give up on the sys­tem en­tirely, said James Ap­ple­ton, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Dropout Pre­ven­tion Cen­ter, a Clem­son Univer­sity ini­tia­tive.

“The idea is that stu­dents do not just leave school. They slowly dis­con­nect over time,” he said.

Many fac­tors can lead to tru­ancy, Mr. Ap­ple­ton said. Some stu­dents are “pushed” from school for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, some as sim­ple as cold class­rooms. Oth­ers are “pulled” from the class­room be­cause they must work to sup­port their im­pov­er­ished family, or they fol­low the lead of friends or sib­lings who stopped at­tend­ing.

The District of Columbia and other ur­ban ar­eas, he added, face greater strug­gles with tru­ancy than their ru­ral coun­ter­parts. Most in­ner-city school districts have dou­ble-digit ab­sen­tee rates, he said.

Thir­teen per­cent of D.C. high school stu­dents, for ex­am­ple, missed at least 15 days of school without a valid ex­cuse dur­ing the first half of the 2010-2011 school year, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port from D.C. Coun­cil’s Spe­cial Com­mit­tee on School Safety and Tru­ancy.

The rea­sons stu­dents cut class in­clude un­safe routes to and from school, fear of be­ing bul­lied, not hav­ing the proper cloth­ing or lack­ing Metro fare to get there, the re­port says. City of­fi­cials are con­sid­er­ing a re­ward pro­gram along with out­reach ef­forts geared to­ward tru­ant stu­dents and their fam­i­lies.

While re­ward sys­tems can play a role, an­a­lysts be­lieve it’s more important to address the root cause of tru­ancy and find out why stu­dents aren’t show­ing up.

“Re­search in­di­cates that tru- ants of­ten come from low-in­come fam­i­lies, have par­ents who lack high school de­grees, are vic­tims of abuse or ne­glect, have men­tal health prob­lems or have par­ents with his­to­ries of crim­i­nal­ity or sub­stance abuse,” Mr. Ap­ple­ton said. “How­ever, some are highly in­tel­li­gent and are just bored with school.”

Many school sys­tems, such as Chicago’s, rely heav­ily on “early in­di­ca­tors,” iden­ti­fy­ing stu­dents who are most likely to skip class and in­ter­vene be­fore tru­ant stu­dents be­come dropouts.

If early in­ter­ven­tion fails, tru­ant stu­dents and their par­ents can be hit with harsh penal­ties. Tru­ancy laws dif­fer from state to state, but stu­dents of­ten face fines, com­mu­nity ser­vice, re­stric­tions on driv­ing priv­i­leges and in ex­treme cases, pro­ba­tion, ac­cord­ing to the dropout pre­ven­tion cen­ter. Some lo­cal gov­ern­ments re­quire tru­ant stu­dents to wear an­kle bracelets so au­thor­i­ties can mon­i­tor them dur­ing school hours and be sure they’re in class.

In some states, par­ents can face fines or be forced to at­tend par­ent­ing classes. In the worst cases, par­ents can face ne­glect charges and may even lose cus­tody of their chil­dren.

While they agree tru­ancy is a se­ri­ous prob­lem that must be ad­dressed, some of­fi­cials are skep­ti­cal of giv­ing stu­dents cash, cars or iPods as in­cen­tives to come to class.

Cam­den, N.J., School Board mem­ber Sean Brown told the Philadel­phia In­quirer that he op­poses the grant pro­gram. For­mer board mem­ber Jose Del­gado told the pa­per that the move is “out­ra­geous” and sends the wrong mes­sage to stu­dents. Many crit­ics be­lieve that daily at­ten­dance should be an ex­pec­ta­tion, and districts should not have to re­sort to what some con­sider bribery to get chil­dren to class

But oth­ers be­lieve that stu­dents can’t be reached un­less districts get them in the build­ing.

“Many times it is ben­e­fi­cial to get kids to school in or­der to be able to work on these un­der­ly­ing prob­lems,” Mr. Ap­ple­ton said. “Re­search sug­gested that in­cen­tives can be ef­fec­tive.”

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