"At first, I was a bit reluctant about having our children participate in the program," principal Sheila Richards admitted, "but I felt that if it was something that was going to help us motivate the students that we would try it."
Family Academy is one of 60 New York City public schools that volunteered to participate in the Spark incentive program, which is open to fourth and seventh graders for one school year. The money they earn is deposited into their own bank accounts, but they are free to spend it however they wish.
The Spark program, conceived by Harvard economist Dr. Roland Fryer, was created to narrow the educational gap between the haves and the have-nots. In other words, "trying to figure out a way to make school tangible for kids, to come up with short-term rewards that will be in their long-term best interest," Fryer said.
Spark isn't the only program in the country aimed at motivating kids with monetary incentives. Schools in a dozen states have similar programs. In Albuquerque, N.M., students at the Cesar Chavez Charter School can earn up to $300 a year for good attendance. In Santa Ana, Calif., kids who do well on their math tests can earn up to $250 and in Baltimore, students can take away $110 depending on their test scores.
"This is about making sure that students who might drop out, might not be able to get a high school diploma get it," Dr. Andres Alonso of the Baltimore City school system said. "That's something that is going to have extraordinary, extraordinary implications for a child's life.'
The battle lines are drawn, however, with those who oppose these incentive programs saying schools should concentrate on getting kids engaged in what they're doing, not just how they're doing.
"The idea that poor kids can only be bribed with money rather than being engaged borders on racist," said Alfie Kohn, author of "Punished by Rewards."
Fryer disagrees. "The idea that we shouldn't be giving kids rewards -- come on. In affluent neighborhoods, parents take their kids to dinner, buy them shiny red cars. We've got to get past 'It's wrong, it's bribery.' We are in crisis mode; we're beyond philosophy. If it doesn't work, we're all arguing over nothing."
And what does the research say? Although these specific programs are too new to be evaluated, research on rewarding children for good grades shows that despite short-term gains, it may be detrimental in the long-term by decreasing their motivation, especially when the incentive is removed.
Students, on the other hand, are thrilled to earn the cash and Richards hopes that enthusiasm and sense of accomplishment lasts for a lifetime.
"I think once a child has learned that they can be successful, and they get a taste of success, that they would continue to want to be successful. Now that they're really trying, they see 'This is what I can actually do, and I can actually be successful, and I can get good grades.'"