Graduation day equals pay day

Imagine receiving an $800 check - no strings attached - from your high school for graduating with top honors.

For hard-working students graduating from a handful of school districts in Indiana, this windfall is a reality.

Thanks to a bill passed in 1997 by the state legislature, all Indiana high schools can legally award pupils money for earning an academic honors diploma. Thus far, only a few districts have taken advantage of the state's new option. The idea is for high-schoolers to put the money toward college, but they can spend it however they wish.

"When students are challenged, their performance skyrockets," says Gary Jones, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Hammond, Ind. "Acquiring this $800 is a challenge to them. I strongly believe that the money is a major incentive for sharp students."

To qualify, students have to take 47 credits in rigorous, advanced courses and pass with at least a B average. The state requires a minimum of 38 credits to graduate. Students can enter the program during their first or second year of high school.

So far, the monetary-incentive idea seems to be holding up. In 1997, 20 seniors qualified for the grant in Hammond. In 1998, the number rose to 38. And, after tallying grades halfway through this school year, Mr. Jones is predicting that an even larger group will qualify.

Many outside critics are watching the Hammond school system - as well as others that are handing out checks - in order to find out if the program works. Most like what they see so far.

"This is a good idea because it rewards long-term goals," says Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver, which monitors state school policies. "Earning the $800 will take a student four years. They can't get the money for something they did overnight."

Ms. Christie warns, however, that being awarded money should never be the prime motivator that drives a student to perform well. "But then again," she adds, "most parents see no problem with paying their kids for A's."

The Indiana law is unusual because states typically only reward students financially with college scholarships. Georgia, for example, provides its ace graduates with scholarships to attend state colleges regardless of family income.

For all districts in Indiana, the decision to pay students who make good grades boiled down to one question: Should we reward the individual who won't be coming back to school, or should we apply the money to existing students who may need it more?

Many districts have not followed Hammond's lead because they feel that the money is intended to help pay for upper-level classes that few - mostly honor - students attend. They also argue that districts like Hammond are not using the money wisely.

Some parents who live in districts that choose not to offer the awards are asking why their children aren't receiving them. School board officials are finding it difficult to respond - especially when a neighboring district is participating.

Joseph Dixon, superintendent of Frankfort school district, says the decision to award the money directly to honor graduates was an easy one.

"The money is a vehicle to improve the quality of education," he says. "When students take rigorous courses, they better prepare themselves for college."

More important, Mr. Dixon says, the money can really help students who are strapped for cash pay for college.

"My family is not that well-off," wrote one student in a thank-you note to Dixon. "Because of my subject area, I really needed to buy a computer to take to college. The $800 grant allowed me to purchase one."

Dixon says that calls from school administrators from other states have been increasing. They want to find out how a public school can reward its graduates with money.

Both Dixon and Jones believe the program will catch on in other states.

"It's all a question of funding," Jones says. "If other states can find the funding, then I think this sort of program will surely catch on."

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