CASH for grades. Parents have offered the incentive for years. Now, a few public-school systems are trying out the idea. For example:
Cleveland students in Grades 7 to 12 earn scholarship money for the grades they make in academic courses. An ``A'' fetches $40; a ``B'' earns $20; a ``C,'' $10. A straight-A senior who has taken all the honors courses, which pay slightly more, can earn as much as $6,000 by graduation.
Gulf County, Fla., public schools are following a plan that will use similar cash awards, not only for grades but also for attendance, community service, and the participation of parents in certain college-counseling sessions.
In Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry paid cash awards of $1,000 each to all 1988 high school seniors who graduated in the top 10 percent of their class. Salutatorians and valedictorians got two and three times as much.
The idea behind the money is to raise students' performance and, at least in the Ohio and Florida experiments, get them to aim for college.
``College is there for you, but you have got to earn your way,'' says Alfred Tutela, superintendent of Cleveland Public Schools. ``And how you earn your way is by performing.'' Currently, half the students in the system drop out; of those remaining, only one-third go on to college.
The city's new ``Scholarship-in-Escrow'' program gives students frequent recognition for their academic achievements through certificates, award ceremonies, and notification of how much they've earned.
In the Cleveland plan, the actual cash is held until it can be applied to college tuition or some other post-secondary education. Students have eight years after graduation to take advantage of their awards.
``I think it's a good idea, because it helped me,'' says Andrea Campbell, a freshman at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. She originally thought of going to a large state school on a track scholarship. But the roughly $350 she earned in the Scholarship-in-Escrow program was quadrupled by Case Western in its financial package. ``I could go here for education instead of running.''
``I need as much help as I can get,'' says Dana Matthews, now a freshman at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, who received $340 from the program.
Both students say they would have gone to college even without the cash awards. Since the program only took effect in January, school officials say it's unlikely that the awards had much effect on last year's seniors. The long-term impact will be seen when this year's seventh- and eighth-graders graduate, school officials say.
A tour of several Cleveland schools suggests the idea can take root where principals and teachers want it to.
At Davis Intermediate School, student posters trumpet the importance of academics. ``Be a hero. Go to school,'' says one. The school distributed the posters in the neighborhood to boost community awareness; gave high achievers oversize balloons at a special ceremony; and had teachers meet to talk over grading scales.
School officials here say that the money rewards children with something they can relate to. (At one elementary school, students with perfect attendance get a free drink or fries at a local fast-food restaurant.) The money also tells parents and teachers that the city is committed to education, they say.
``You have got to create the right environment and the right structure - then the scholarship money can really make a difference,'' adds Dave Erdmann, dean of admissions at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. He is executive director of a national task force that reported on successful high schools two years ago.
Many of the necessary elements - supportive school officials, a committed community - appear to be coming together in Gulf County, Fla., where Mr. Erdmann is helping to set up a program that includes cash incentives. Still in the implementation stage, the project is already providing encouraging signs. Last year, only eight students in Gulf County signed up to take the SAT college exam; this fall 61 took the test. The county graduates about 150 to 200 students a year.
Funding for these cash-incentive programs comes from various sources. The Gulf County project runs on money from a foundation based in Jacksonville, Fla., while the five-year, $16 million Cleveland initiative received corporate and foundation donations.
``Education has really caught the imagination and interest of the business community,'' says Richard Pogue, chairman of the Greater Cleveland Roundtable, a forum of business, civic, and religious leaders, which sponsored the program. ``I think the whole country is realizing how important it is to educate people so we can compete in the world.''
The Washington, D.C., program is funded by leftover federal grant money and takes a slightly different tack. Seniors can use the money however they please. It's the mayor's way of saying thank you, says Pat Scott of the district's Office of Education. ``He wants the youngsters who excel academically to know this government stands behind them.''