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Some Students Hesitate on Cash for Grades

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Paying kids to learn is a controversial idea that's hitting school districts across the country. Earlier this year, Chicago Public Schools began paying some high schoolers for 'C's or better. Chicago's South Shore School of Leadership distributes its second round of checks today. That school did especially poorly during the first marking period—only eight students earned any green. For Chicago Public Radio, Eilee Heikenen-Weiss finds out why.

The Paper Project is an experiment.

FRYER: This might work, it might not.

Dr. Roland Fryer Jr. thinks it's worth a shot though. He's the brainchild behind it all, and heads Harvard's Education Innovation Laboratory, or EdLabs. When the program launched at 20 Chicago Public Schools in September, many students didn't trust it. That meant low enrollment for some schools like South Shore School of Leadership.

WATKINS: These students, in this era/generation are 'show me.' I want to honestly see it.

Project coordinator Tiffany Watkins says only 25 percent of eligible students signed up at first. Students like fifteen-year-old Tatiana Barbour didn't trust the program until the first checks actually came. 

BARBOUR: At first, yes I did think it was a joke and I didn't believe it. But when I saw the first check, I was like, 'Ok, they not playin'.'

Now the program seems to be catching on. Enrollment is up to 70 percent. Still, some students don't think the program is for them.

WATKINS: The two-year freshmen who actually should be sophomores, those students are the ones that are really resistant.

South Shore School of Leadership has around 35-40 freshmen who have been held back, having not earned enough credits to become sophomores. Watkins says because those students don't see themselves as freshman, they don't want to participate in a program that's exclusively for freshmen.

WATKINS: It's stigmatized because of that.

The Paper Project pays students on a sliding scale for As, Bs and Cs multiple times a year through 10th grade. But there's a catch—getting an “F” wipes out any money earned during a pay period. And there's one more thing—the program holds out on half of the money until graduation. At South Shore Leadership, more than 55 percent never graduate. 

Staying focused in class is a struggle for 14-year-old Michelle Tharpe, who didn't earn money last time.

THARP: In a class that got lesser students in it, I think I can concentrate more.

Tharpe is one of 23 special needs freshmen at South Shore Leadership who are enrolled in the Paper Project. She was recently moved into the kind of smaller classroom she needs, which may help her boost her grades next marking period.

Project Coordinator Watkins says there are some things a check can't fix.

WATKINS: You know, some of these students here, whose parents are on drugs, who are ward of the state, who don't have a place to live, who are homeless. So what do I care about Columbus discovering America? I don't.
That's not to say she doesn't think the program is worthwhile.
WATKINS: I think Paper Project is great for those students who would have typically gotten all Ds and those students who got mostly Cs to get through school—they need that extra motivator. They may not attain the grades they need to go further to aspire to higher learning.

If it turns out that the Paper Project only helps some—the ones on the verge of success—it still might be valuable. Katie Ellis is the Project's Manager for Chicago Public Schools.

ELLIS: Pulling the students who are on the edge and moving them into a success zone, that's a very important thing to do.

Other cities are also in on this experiment. In August, we'll find out how cost-effective the programs have proved in Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York.

FRYER: In the first five weeks, whether or not they understood it perfectly and didn't believe it, I'm less worried about that.

Founder Roland Fryer:

FRYER: What we're interested in, is kind of the average affect of this program.

Right now, freshman Michelle Tharpe knows she's got to kick it up another notch to get the cash.

THARPE: I went from Fs to now I got Ds. I think it's going to help me. I want it to help me, but I'm not for sure.

Tharpe says there is another motivation. Many of her family members didn't make it though high school. She wants to show them she can.

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Eilee Heikenen-Weiss.

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