Cash For Flunkers

By Maia Efrem

High achieving JHS 123 eighth graders credit incentives for the student's motivation to excel. Photo by Maia Efrem

High achieving JHS 123 eighth graders credit incentives for the student's motivation to excel. Photo by Maia Efrem

Stuffed toys, colorful pencils and stickers tempted the sixth grader in a pony tail at the ZONE store located in the cafeteria at the James M. Kieran Junior High School 123. Her turn was next. She deliberated for awhile, then picked the pink pencil with yellow smiley faces and hearts.

Pulling out a Monopoly-sized bill, the girl handed over $5 and walked out, quickly showing off the pencil to the students still on the line.

Principal Virginia Connelly, now in her 12th year at JHS 123, instituted the ZONE incentive program in the fall of 2006 to reward children for good behavior, attendance and high test scores. Teachers hand out fake $10, $20, $50 bills to deserving students use to buy pens, stickers, stuffed animals, Yankee hats, and other novelty items.

“We did $1,200 worth of business today,” said Kellyanne Royce, the school’s guidance counselor in charge of the store. ZONE stands for “Zest for learning, One for all and all for one, No excuses, Exercise daily.”

Junior High School 123 on Morrison Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard has had a long history of low academic scores. Its students are predominately minority and poor — with 35 percent of the population black, 64 percent Latino, 1 percent other. Two years ago, 90 percent of students came from families receiving public assistance. Today that number is 98 percent.

This year, for the first time, the scores went up high enough to remove the school from the state’s Schools Under Registration Review (SURR) list for under-performing schools.

In the spring of 2009, JHS 123 received an “A” on the Chancellor’s Progress Report. About 56 percent of the students read on grade level, up from 22.2 percent the year before.  Math scores were 66.7 percent, an increase from 41.8 percent. In addition, 267  out of its 567 students finished the semester on the honor roll–up from 148 the year before.

The principal, Virginia  Connelly, called this a  “staggering success.” She credits the progress to a series of initiatives, including lower class sizes for math and English, a new program the builds in parent participation and federally  mandated tutoring, paid for by city and state dollars that will dry up now that the school has shown so much success.

But by far, the most controversial program has been the new and varied ways kids can now earn extra privileges. For example, teachers decided to allow the best-behaved homeroon to eat in the plush ZONE Lounge for a week. Formerly a teacher’s cafeteria, the large room has comfortable sofas and armchairs, a television, and video games for the students.

Assistant Principal David Rodriguez said the lounge idea is one of the most popular. “The kids go nuts for it,” he said, laughing. “Every homeroom competes with another to see who will be the best behaved and get use of the lounge.”

Students can also earn cash for taking the practice tests leading up to the state tests. The students receive $10 for taking the exam and an added $50 for scoring 100 percent. “It’s difficult to get them to come to school to take the test,” said Connelly. By the end of the year some of the students had earned upwards of $450.

Some said they used their test money to buy medication and other household necessities. But most spent it on themselves.  One particular student had to hide the money from his drug addicted mother. Connelly worked with Washington Mutual Bank to help students open a secret savings account where he could keep the money safe.

Another student, with dreams of attending Brooklyn Tech High School, saved every penny of his earnings for a new laptop and supplies for school. He put aside money for transportation as well allowing himself a weekly splurge on an express bus from Bronx to Brooklyn.

Wearing a black cardigan, star-shaped earrings, and heavy black eyeliner, eighth grader Karen Cruz, a member of the student council, said she has seen the gradual change in her three years at the school. “It’s like we all started to care and wanted to do better. It’s an amazing feeling when you do well, and you know that you did it,” she said

Attendance was also in the mix of behavior that could earn students rewards. Each eighth grade homeroom was thrown a pizza party for raising attendance rates — now at 93 percent for the eighth grade. This is an incentive 13 year-old Tiffany de Losangeles thinks works. “Why shouldn’t we get prizes and rewards? We work so hard it’s the least that we could get,” said de Losangeles. “Clearly it works, our school is doing so well.”

Her brother, Tommy de Losangeles, 15, was left back twice before, but is now treasurer of the student council. He won an Xbox 360 last year, one of the many raffle prizes the school gives out. “We get excited. For the prizes, pizza parties, and school,” he said.

“Find me an adult who does work without a thought of compensation. Why do people think kids don’t think like that as well?” said Connelly.”If I say to them being a good citizen, studying well, being on the road to college is going to be rewarded,”she said. “It’s difficult for them to see that here.”

JHS 123 also received Supplemental Education Services to hire outside tutoring companies. Schools qualify for free tutoring if their school failes math and readings tests two years in a row.

Four to five tutoring programs set up in classrooms after school and hired teachers from within the school, paying them $50 an hour. The companies — Failure Free Reading, Kaplan, Princeton Review, Education

“The going rate two years ago was $1,800 a child for 10 kids,” she said. “The most the company spent on tutors and supplies is $7,000. But they made a profit of $8,000 in six months in just one school. It’s a sweet deal.”

Schools that increase their grades are removed from the eligible list for the next school year, a measure that bothers Connelly. “The schools are hit hard by the sudden lack of funds,” she said, suggesting an extra transitioning year of funding “so it doesn’t feel like we are being punished for doing well.”

Besides increasing award-based motivation, the school reduced class size from 25 in reading and 28 in math down to 15 students per teacher. The faculty introduced a workshop model where teachers use visual aid to help the students understand complicated concepts. And the school introduced the Mastery Grading method that increased the passing rate to 75 percent, a move that alarmed teachers at first, but has raised the

As a means of promoting reading JHS 123 introduced a new emphasis on authentic reading, or reading real books, not excerpts and short stories written for student textbooks. “Our students have become avid readers, something we hope they will take away with them when they leave,” said Connelly.

Two years ago, science teacher Tabitha Hargrove and American history teacher John McSorley helped introduce TeacherEase, a web-based interactive grade book. The program allows teachers to enter grades and comments about the students, as well as the homework assignments. Parents have their own login information and can check on the status and development of their child at any time.

TeacherEase has increased parental participation and awareness, an factor teachers believe is behind much of their students’ success. “Nothing is a surprise at parent teacher conferences and report card days anymore,” said Hargrove.

“The system logs which parent visited the site, and I’ll tell you, these parents are on it every day, it’s fantastic. As a teacher you don’t feel like you are doing this alone anymore,” said McSorley. “The parents are doing their part at home.”

In most public schools every year the students change teachers. In JHS 123 the students stay with their respective teachers from sixth to eighth grade. “When I first started teaching here two years ago I thought it was odd, but now I think it is the best way,” said Hargrove, standing in her science classroom. “This allows the teacher to get to know the student and approach them in a way that will produce the most results.”

The successful programs have been the catalyst to the school’ success, but some questions linger about the school’s rewards method and what it means in the long run.

Programs based on reward motivation have sprung up in Baltimore, Atlanta, and recently in New York City. In 2008, Maryland provided $935,000 to programs aimed at increasing state test scores. The program, Learn and Earn, was successful and increased student marks on state standardized tests. But some experts argue these quick fixes do more harm than good.

Writer and former teacher Alfie Kohn, claims students lose their interest in learning for its own sake when they are rewarded for behavior. “Rewards motivate students to get rewards for the sake of rewards,” said Kohn. In one study, children who were expecting to receive a prize for completing a task successfully did not perform as well as those who expected nothing.

This poses the question of what will happen to JHS 123 students once they are no longer offered a reason to do well. Kohn predicts they will lose interest in their work and return to the habits they had before they were motivated by prizes.

The administration argues that incentives work when they are coupled with other curricular innovations.  JHS125 decided to turn the school’s successful American History concentration into an all-school program in association with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American Studies. It now has one of the strongest American History and Government curricula in the city.

For the first time this year, 80 eighth grade students have signed up to take the 11th grade Ameican History and Government Regents test. “We’re very excited, this is when we show how advanced we are in what we teach,” said Connelly.

Government teacher McSorley has altered how he teaches his class, allowing the students to choose their one homework assignment each week. Eighth grader Jovan Cook, 13, enjoys the freedom the system affords. “If I feel like it, I can write an essay or just define words, it’s all up to us,” he said.

At four in the afternoon, long after other seventh graders had left for the day, Ryan Persaud and Gabriel Milligan, both 12, sit with math teacher Christopher Gooding building a robot. Members of the Robot club are preparing to represent their school in the citywide competition in January.

Gooding has been teaching at JHS 123 for 11 years and has seen the changes over the last two as a sign of a promising future. “These kids are remarkable, and they definitely have a lot on their plate,” he said. “Many of the students live in shelters, and we try to be as understanding as we can.”

“I enjoy doing this,” said Persaud, not looking up from the plastic pieces he was putting together. “I memorized the manual so I never need to look in for help.”

Behind him Milligan, or “Gilligan” as he is called, demonstrated the route the robot would have to make in less than three minutes. Looking up at Gooding, Milligan points out that every school he has ever attended “has been chosen for an award or something special.”

“This is a special school, right Mr. Gooding?”

“Yes it is Gilligan,” said Gooding.

2 Responses to “Cash For Flunkers”

  1. Brilliant post thanks, all the best. I really enjoy reading this blog, it has a great position on my favourites bar!

  2. avatar miri says:

    maia – i adore ur writings
    i am so proud,
    interesting info
    keep doing an exelant work


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