Paying Kids to Go to School

Aug. 30, 2005 — -- Education is supposed to be its own reward, but now one Massachusetts school is putting a price on attendance.

Starting this week, students at Chelsea High School outside Boston will receive $25 for perfect attendance this quarter.

"I'm not happy that we have to pay kids to come to school," said Morrie Siegal, the school administrator behind the program. "I'm not happy at all, but as a member of the school commission, I have an obligation to raise the academic level of our kids."

Many parents in the area, a predominantly immigrant community, go to work early and have no idea whether their kids are making it to class. Attendance at Chelsea hovers around 90 percent. While that might sound high, a student who attends 90 percent of classes still misses three and a half weeks of class in a year.

Now, students will get a check at graduation -- $25 a quarter plus bonus money for a perfect year of attendance, which could add up to $500.

Chelsea is not the only school offering incentives to come to class. In central Pennsylvania, students receive a pre-paid gift card; in West Virginia, it's a chance to win $1,000; in Fort Meyers, Fla., students are enticed with memberships at the local skateboard park; a school in Fort Worth, Texas, offers a $2,000 shopping spree; and in Albuquerque, N.M., the grand prize for attendance is a new car.

Statistics suggest the incentive programs are working.

At Trimble Tech High School in Fort Worth where a new car was offered for top attendance, attendance is up 3 percent. In Lowell, Mass., the number of seniors eligible for a free laptop computer as a reward for attendance more than doubled.

Critics say the schools should be more focused on other problems rather than paying students to attend.

"We don't pay people just to show up to work," said Garret Duncan, associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "We pay people to work and to accomplish certain objectives over the course of a day."

But in Chelsea, administrators are convinced their payment incentive will make a difference.

"We need to make sure we make the extra effort to acknowledge superior performance," said Chelsea principal Morton Orlov, "in this case, superior attendance."