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An Inner-City School Where Attendance Pays – Literally

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By Rebecca S. Rivas, Special to the NNPA from The St. Louis American –

How does an inner-city principal get her elementary students and their families to commit to attendance and good behavior?

An incentive of $300 is a good start, as Principal Natalie Means of Jefferson Elementary, in St. Louis, discovered.

In the fall, Jefferson Elementary offered 25 newly enrolled students $300, if they achieved 95 percent attendance, were not suspended, and their guardians attended three out of four Parent Teacher Organization meetings by the end of the fall semester.

The families also had to live in one of the surrounding rental areas - Residences at Murphy Park, O'Fallon Place, and Carr Square neighborhood - all developed by McCormack Baron Salazar company. Its partnering management company, McCormack Baron Ragan, funded the incentive program through an overseeing nonprofit group, Urban Strategies Inc.

Nearly 80 percent of the 25 students made the grade.

Means compared a group of non-participating students to the students working towards the incentive. Non-participating students missed an average of 2.8 days this semester, while students in the program missed an average of 1.5 days. Nearly half of the students enrolled in the program - 42 percent - nailed a perfect attendance record, compared to 25 percent of non-participating students.

National studies confirm that this type of incentive program works. However, with consistent state budget cuts, incentives are far from most principals' minds.

For Jefferson Elementary, McCormack Baron Salazar has kept a close watch on its progress for many years.

In 1998, McCormack Baron Salazar built Residences at Murphy Park, which neighbors the school. Soon after, Richard Baron, chairman and CEO of the McCormack Baron companies, raised about $4 million to revamp the school to entice neighborhood residents to enroll their children in it.

Since then, the company has supported the school in various activities by working with Urban Strategies, Inc. to implement them. This year, Kate Casas, project manager for the group, met with Means about her goals for the school year and what would help her to achieve them. Means told Casas that she wanted to focus on enrollment, attendance, and behavior.

Last year, Jefferson became an art-focused pilot school, or a school that runs autonomously within the St. Louis Public School District. Despite marketing and neighborhood canvassing, Means did not reach her enrollment goals in 2009, she said.

Casas found a 2010 study conducted by Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr., which found that paying students for reading books, good behavior, and attendance had significant results, particularly with minority populations.

However, paying kids for test scores and grades did not produce results. Fryer conducted experiments in four urban school settings: Dallas, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City. In all, 18,000 students in more than 250 urban schools participated in his trials.

Even if the program at Jefferson didn't produce results in all students, it left them with a valuable lesson.

This semester, three African-American children from one family entered in the program. The two younger siblings succeeded, but the sixth-grade boy did not. The family had just moved from Mississippi, where they enjoyed a more rural lifestyle. A few weeks into the school year, Everest Wright, 13, got into a fight and was suspended.

"I was having a little bit of an off day," Wright said. "Someone said something to me, and I flipped out."

When he got home, he instantly realized the severity of his actions. But, it really hit him at Christmas time.

"I saw my momma take my brother and sister to the store and pick out their presents, and I thought, ‘That could have been me,'" he said. "A lesson did come out of that. Before I start fighting, I try to think about it first. Is it worth it?"

His sister, third-grader Diamond Lofton, bought a Nintendo system, a new coat and several clothes with her money. Wright had to put his present on layaway.

Every other week, Casas and two Washington University students would mail home letters to the families to inform them about their status of succeeding. With some families, a letter was all it took. But, for others, they made home visits to offer any assistance and resources to help the guardians and students achieve their goals.

The process increased the trust level that parents had for the school, Means said, particularly for families who had negative experiences with their previous schools.

"We were all positively impacted by this," Means said. "I think a barrier was broken. They saw us as partners and not someone that was invading their space and looking for problems to go report. I would love to do it again."

Last month, Urban Strategies president Sandra Moore and Baron congratulated the families who completed the program at the school.

Urban Strategies plans on offering the incentives again with a goal of 125 children next time.

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