Cash for showing up? A St. Louis school is trying it

Monday, August 30, 2010 | 10:43 a.m. CDT; updated 7:25 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 29, 2010

ST. LOUIS — Some school districts have tried everything to get parents to send their children to class, and to persuade the children to behave when they get there.

Now, for the first time, a St. Louis school is offering cash incentives.

Urban Strategies, a nonprofit organization, is offering $300 per child for those who choose Jefferson Elementary School over competitors such as charter schools and magnets.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports there are stipulations. Money is limited to students who didn't attend the school last year, and students must have near-perfect attendance and avoid out-of-school suspensions. Parents must also attend three PTO meetings.

The value of paying for children's attendance and behavior is being debated in a half-dozen cities. A Harvard University study of 38,000 students at 261 low-performing urban schools in four cities showed that incentives improve classroom behavior, but not necessarily test scores.

Proponents liken cash incentives to college scholarships, and say low-income families need the extra help. But critics say the incentives fail to address the real problems such as bad teaching or dull curriculum.

"It's almost like bribing (the students) instead of correcting the core problems," said Garrett Duncan, an associate professor of education at Washington University.

But his colleague, education professor William Tate, found no fault with the program.

"What they're really saying to these kids is your presence on a regular basis is important," he said. "It's so important we're going to reward you for doing it."

Stacey Wright and her three children recently moved to St. Louis from Oxford, Miss. Wright, an in-home caregiver, weighed more than a dozen school choices before choosing Jefferson, which sits right across the street from her home. The program is being offered to families in three mixed-income housing complexes surrounding the school, where most of the students live.

"It's an awesome deal," Wright said. "A lot of us can use that money. It doesn't sound like a lot, but it makes a big difference."

Jefferson principal Nathalie Means spent this month mailing fliers and calling parents about the $300 incentive program. Seventeen families enrolled their children as a result, giving Jefferson 22 new students, Means said. Many of the transfers came from two charter schools that did not reopen this year.

Not everyone jumped at the chance.

"There were some parents who said, 'We like our school, we're not going to move back,'" Means said. "With the behavior piece in there, we had some families who said, 'I don't know if my kid can make it.'"

Enrollment at Jefferson is on the decline. It dropped to 246 last year, from 436 in 2005-06, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Earlier this month, parents got letters informing them that less than 15 percent of students passed reading and math sections of last year's Missouri Assessment Program testing. The letter offered parents the option of transferring to other schools in the district.

"There's always the fear that a school might close," Means said. "We came up with this as a way to start the incline."


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