Officials of Memorial Junior High School here gave 14-year-old Wallace Charles the equivalent of $5 last week for being there -- or, more precisely, for compiling a perfect attendance record through the first month of school.
"I'm going to get my annual [yearbook] with it," said Charles, a lanky black student whose Afro comb was stuck carefully in the curls at the back of his head. In his pocket, he carried his "privilege card," the new currency minted by the school and redeemable at the school store for everything from pencils to dictionaries to tickets for field trips.
Students are credited the equivalent of 25 cents for every day that they make it to school and to all their classes on time.
For school principal Robert Amparan, having just won final school board approval of the plan, this pilot pay-for-attendance program is a potentially vital tool in cutting the truancy rate at this predominantly Hispanic school located near the wharves at the southern end of San Diego.
Despite a few raised eyebrows among parents and other school officials, Amparan sees no problem with injecting a little capitalistic incentive into the educational process.
"Yes, I accept the idea of the American work ethic -- that school is an opportunity," he said. "But the reality was that we had kids leaving school who in their own minds didn't see grades as a sufficient reason to stay. . . . my responsibility is to give the teachers an opportunity to teach the kids, and a necessary first step was to get them here."
The idea of providing children with new incentives to go to school is hardly new either in California or elsewhere. But, while the concept of work-study programs involving pay is well established, this seems to be the first monetary quid pro quo for attendance alone.
Nothing else seemed to work at Memorial. When last year's classes began, the rate of unexcused absences stood at 4 percent of the school's 800 students in October. By June, the rate of unexcused absences had climbed to 9 percent, compared to a citywide average of 3 percent.
It was hard to pinpoint exactly what gave students the urge to "ditch classes." Many of the truants, Amparan said, came from families on welfare -- but then three-quarters of the school's students came from such families. Some of the truants had an imperfect grasp of English -- but so did one-third of the school population. There was no distinct pattern.
To complicate matters, the enrollment lists were constantly changing, as families lost jobs, moved when the rent went up, or followed the crops up to northern California in the spring.Over the 1979-80 school year, he said, the school population had a 60 percent turnover.
"If you're in an economically secure home," Amparan said, "the route is plotted out for you. You know where you'll be going to elementary school. You know you'll be going to this junior high, and that high school. You see your long-term progress. . . .
"But these kids may go to two or three junior highs. They're always being interrupted. They're always having to restore their place in the pecking order. They want immediate gratification." So the idea for the 25-cents-a-day reward was born.
It is too soon to measure results, Amparan said, but he is buoyantly optimistic. The first-month trucancy rate stood at 2.8 percent this year, compared to 4 percent in that period last year. sThe program was not officially in effect, he said, but rumors of its imminent approval probably helped attendance.
The plan is also a $10,000 gamble for the city of San Diego, because the 25 cents comes out of city funds. If attendance is improved by 25 percent or more over a full year this money will be recouped in increased state aid. If attendance figures remain as low as last year, however, state aid will fall $10,000 short of making up the new payments.
Inquiries have been pouring in from school districts all over California and from news organizations as far away as Britain and Australia. "There's tremendous curiosity about it," said Dr. Leonard Sherr, who chaired the school board advisory committee that originally endorsed the plan.
Some education experts, however, have registered disapproval. A spokesman for the Children's Defense Fund -- the Washington-based group that produced the book "Children Out of School," criticizing American schools' efforts to cope with children outside the economic and social mainstream -- described Memorial's approach as "somewhat cosmetic . . . the long-term remedies for truancy lie in more fundamental changes in the schools."
Yet the plan received a qualified endorsement from conservative Republican S. I. Hayakawa, California's junior senator and former president of San Francisco State College. "Although it sort of shocks me to have to pay [the students] to go to school, nevertheless, if they've tried everything and nothing else has worked, it's worth trying," Hayakawa said.
"I think it'll make a difference, maybe for five out of 10 kids," said Charles, a ninth grader. But "some people just don't want to go to school," added 13-year-old Carlee Anthony. For them, he said, it won't make a difference.
And for him? "At first everybody thought it was crazy," he said. Now he likes the idea a little. "But for me it would work better if you could get food with those little cards."