D.C. Students' Paydays in 'Cash-for-Grades' Program Yield a Range of Emotions

D'Angelo Dorsey, left, and brother Kyree, of Hart Middle School, who receive checks in the Capital Gains program, compare statements.
D'Angelo Dorsey, left, and brother Kyree, of Hart Middle School, who receive checks in the Capital Gains program, compare statements. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

D'Angelo Dorsey's envelope remained sealed when he arrived home one day last month from his Southeast Washington school. The 12-year-old knew the amount written on the check inside, each dollar tied to his behavior and performance, but he didn't want to see it.

"I'm ashamed," D'Angelo said. "It's too low."

Among three siblings in his family who go to Hart Middle School, D'Angelo is the smallest. But he is used to taking home the biggest check through an experiment begun last fall that pays thousands of D.C. students to do what is expected of their peers everywhere: Go to class, behave and get good grades.

They can earn up to $100 every two weeks. That Thursday, D'Angelo's check was for $56.

"They probably will laugh at me at the bank," he said. "I will never get this low again. I never got lower than $60."

Following a trail of failed efforts to fix the District's troubled schools, the Capital Gains program aims to motivate middle-grade students with the same enticement that compels adults: cash. Optimists say the program could help those who have little catch up to those who have much. Skeptics say it will devalue what has always been invaluable: learning for the sake of learning.

Eventually, scholars will evaluate whether the incentive works. But for now, the best gauge might be the reaction of students on payday. Interviews with parents, educators and youths reveal that most students compare their earnings as soon as they're handed out, excited by the financial reward. A few, in a show of apathy or rebellion, destroy checks intended to help them. And some walk home disappointed, envelopes closed.

Down a quiet street of weathered houses, Thomas Woods waits daily for his children, including D'Angelo, to come home from school.

To him, the incentive is a good idea but of limited value in this neighborhood east of the Anacostia River. Hart Middle School, on Mississippi Avenue SE in one of Washington's poorest and most crime-ridden areas, struggles academically. About 17 percent of students passed the city's reading test last school year, and 15 percent passed in math. "They don't get too much attention on this side of the river," Woods said.

Woods, who drives a dump truck to support six children, jokes that he has only one battered pair of shoes but some of his kids can buy several new pairs.

When they're paid on time.

Payments have been inconsistent, Woods said, even as the program calls for consistently good behavior. One afternoon late last month, D'Angelo and his brother Kyree, both sixth-graders, received their money. But their sister Diamond did not.

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