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Delighted -- or Deflated -- by Dollars

Eboni McCallum, a Shaw at Garnet-Patterson Middle School sixth-grader, reacts to her $34 from the Capital Gains program, which gives rewards for academics and behavior.
Eboni McCallum, a Shaw at Garnet-Patterson Middle School sixth-grader, reacts to her $34 from the Capital Gains program, which gives rewards for academics and behavior. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque and N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 18, 2008

The District's experimental program to pay 3,300 middle school students for good grades and behavior is filled with valuable life lessons about hard work, thrift and showing up on time, its supporters say.

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And on yesterday's first payday under the "Capital Gains" plan, kids at the 15 eligible schools cashed in. They earned a total of $137,813 from the initiative, a joint venture of the District and Harvard University. Students can earn a maximum of $100 every two weeks. The average award yesterday was $43.

Unfortunately, students at Shaw at Garnet-Patterson got a lesson officials hadn't planned on: Your check might not be as hefty as you expected.

Although students received credit for reaching achievement targets in reading, math and science, a computer error shorted them on attendance and behavior. Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, said the problem appeared to be unique to Shaw, but at least one other school, Whittier, also reported problems. Iverson said the students will get the money they are due in their next check.

Shaw Principal Brian Betts did his best to make it a teachable moment.

"Mr. Betts once had a job where he didn't get paid for four weeks," he told teacher Brian Diamond's sixth-grade homeroom as he distributed the checks.

Reactions varied widely, with some students bounding down the school steps on 10th Street NW near U Street, waving checks at each other and shrieking: "What d'you get? What d'you get?"

Others sat quietly and studied the pale green checks with "Harvard University" in boldface across the top. Sixth-grader Kevin Sparrow-Bey, who took in $20, said he was annoyed by the assumption that he and his classmates have to be paid to take school seriously.

"I can do the work," said Kevin, 11, who said he gets B's and C's. "It don't change nothing."

Shaw teachers and administrators said the program has had a limited impact so far: A downward spike in tardiness is the most noticeable change, but what it does to grades will take longer to determine. They also said that until yesterday, the program was pretty much an abstraction to many students. As awareness of the system spreads, officials expect the payouts to grow. By next month, the money will be electronically deposited in individual bank accounts, they said.

Betts said that when students begin to see the money every two weeks -- and the direct relationship between what they are paid and what they do in school -- the effect will be more widespread.

"That's when the power of this program will surface," Betts said.

CONTINUED     1           >

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